Ecological Services Initiative Review

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Ecological Services Initiative Review

Ecological goods and services (EGS) are the natural outputs and processes that create health, economic or social benefits. In British Columbia, as in many other jurisdictions, agricultural operations tend to occupy portions of the landscape both high in biodiversity and supporting key ecological functions. Agricultural lands have therefore become a focus for the development of payment for ecological services (PES) programs as a means to reward private-land stewardship that restores or maintains EGS.

The Ecological Services Initiative (ESI) was established in 2009 to demonstrate and test the concept of PES schemes for agricultural producers. As a next step to advance support of EGS from agricultural lands, the British Columbia Agricultural Research and Development Corporation (ARDCorp) undertook a strategic review of the ESI and explored options for the future support of EGS from agricultural lands in BC.

UPDATE: The Ecological Services Initiative is now known as the “Farmland Advantage” Project

Access the review here.

AEI-GF2-ARDCorp logos and text

Disconnected in the Golden Age of Wireless

Last week I spent the better part of one work day without my electronic tethers. A technical glitch knocked out regional cellular service, and I rely upon the airwaves for all my voice and data (internet) needs. Besides setting me to thinking about the need for systems redundancy in running my business, it also gave me time to think about what it means to be connected.

Not that a short stretch of radio silence is all bad. It also keeps the unwanted and seemingly never-ending flow of unwanted communication at bay. With my contact information floating around on the web, I not only suffer highly filterable email spammers, but also frequently the interruptions of cold-call/direct mail scammers and never-take-no-for-an-answer dreamers. I’ve learned to quick filter out most of these: when someone is trying to sneak a sales pitch upon you with a teaser email they either give way too much information (e.g. launching into a long lecture about how I’m not ranking well in the search engines) or they are cryptically terse (e.g. “agroforestry… let’s talk”). But either way they still eat into my productive work time.

My brief disconnection from the information superhighway came in the same week in which I participated in a discussion on how to best extend technical and business development information to agricultural and woodlot producers. Despite the prevalence of high-tech connection options, this ‘boots in the dirt’ crowd have not fully embraced electronic information delivery. The average producer still desires a hands-on, and in-person approach to communications and learning. This, of course, pushes back against the trend of moving extension 180 degrees away from this ideal. Shrinking human and financial resources in government agencies and not-for-profit organizations, against the backdrop of a vast geography that must be served, have meant a move towards centralized expertise serving large territories. And even the ability to get someone on the phone is becoming increasingly scarce. Social media, cloud resources and discussion forums are becoming the standard, not the leading edge, of information delivery and communication.

This can present logistical problems for me because not only do my clientele not readily embrace Web 2.0, some may even look upon those that use it with derision. For someone constantly dealing with tangible production challenges, social media can be seen, at best, as something for evenings and weekend recreation, but certainly not as a legitimate business communications tool.

Counter this with a different kind of disconnection. The end markets for agricultural and forestry products, and the power to sway policy makers, is in the majority urban demographic. And while the average urban dweller has embraced the information age, they are ever increasingly detached from the land. Impressions of land management issues are now formulated virtually in sound-bites and tweets, and more disturbingly, there is a growing percentage of the population that are completely disconnected from, and apathetic to, the challenges and opportunities of natural resource management. This leaves the whole public policy debate open to an advocacy-driven process, settled by who has the best PR strategy, and not something that necessarily reflects the best situation on the ground in the short or long term.

And because the public opinion tug of war is increasingly waged in the social media, it leaves producer groups and their reluctance to use these communication outlets but with arguably the strongest direct connection to the land, with the weakest voice. And, only when we can remedy these social disconnections will the growing rural – urban divide begin to shrink.

Disadvantages of Agroforestry: Support

Finding support – be it research and development, extension, financing or in government regulations and policies – is one of keys to the survival of any natural resource enterprise. For many, a significant disadvantage of agroforestry is that this support either does not exist locally, is highly fragmented, or runs afoul of institutional barriers and professional biases.

As I have noted before, agroforestry is an ancient land use practice, and some indigenous groups have utilized these systems continuously for thousands of years. For most of the planet however, agroforestry has worn the label of an “emerging” or “novel” land use system in the last quarter century. And for most of the modern era, agriculture and forestry have been seen as separate activities. Moreover, within forestry, the timber and non-timber components are typically seen as distinct. And in agricultural settings, production and conservation are not generally viewed holistically (the notable exception being Prairie shelterbelts), and trees and shrubs can be viewed as impeding cultivation, rather than being a source of diversification and integrated production.

The consequences of this fragmented thinking, is a fragmented support network. At best, you may be educating the “support” agencies you seek out for assistance on the potential benefits of agroforestry and why they should help. At worst you will be fighting against strong-willed professional and political biases that will actively try to subvert your efforts.

With notable exceptions that have progressively implemented agroforestry programs, generations of natural resource professionals have been trained in narrow disciplines, and generally in isolation of each other. Academic silos may make the job of setting up university departments easier, but they don’t reflect the integrated reality of our most pressing production (i.e. economic) and conservation challenges, nor acknowledge the great potential in integrated solutions.

These institutional biases can permeate government departments, and are reflected in the regulations and policies that govern resource use and support programs. The divisions are so ingrained at times, that even the most sympathetic elements of the bureaucracy may have their ‘hands tied’, because agroforestry overlaps elements of many program areas, but is not a core responsibility for any one agency or individual.

You may also find yourself fighting against the apathy or animosity of fellow land managers. Other producers and producer associations harbour insecurities and fatigue from the seemingly endless fight to find support for conventional agriculture and forestry (which admittedly has also been a great struggle against a growing urban culture largely divorced from land management issues). Some constituents therefore view agroforestry as a threat to their existence, rather than an option to move forward. There are conventional agricultural producers that actively or passively resist reintroducing trees and shrubs into agricultural landscapes. And the conventional forest industry, particularly those that have large tenures on public lands, can view cultivation, grazing or integrating non-timber production with timber to be planning and production barrier to their business interests.

Agroforestry has tremendous potential as an integrated solution to complex problems. There is support available. There are fantastic models around the world in government agencies, universities and non-profit organizations that can show the way forward. But for many producers trying to navigate their agroforestry enterprise into uncharted waters, the lack of clear support networks and regionally relevant information, infrastructure, financing outlets and government policies, can feel like they are perpetually fighting a head wind.

Moving North American Agroforestry Past ‘Next Big Thing’ Status

During her plenary address to the 12th North American Agroforestry Conference, at the University of Georgia earlier this month, Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), gave a high-level endorsement for agroforestry as a new and emerging land use tool to solve a host of production and conservation challenges. Jamshed Merchant, Assistant Deputy Minister at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, also in attendance at the conference, focused his talk on international cooperation between the US and Canada on temperate agroforestry research and development. Paired with the release of the USDA’s Agroforestry Strategic Framework at the Conference, Deputy Secretary Merrigan’s strong vocal support for agroforestry could lead to a better profile and resources for agroforestry in the US if her words translate into action. Although, more than one USDA employee lamented to me that their agroforestry programs were on the chopping block in the current round of budget trimming in the US.

As a proponent for agroforestry though, I was genuinely happy for my US colleagues and this recognition from the top they received. If history is a good teacher, a higher profile for agroforestry in the US should also translate into better press in Canada, because Canadian’s generally need affirmation from the outside before they feel confident with what they are doing at home.

But as someone who has been attending (albeit intermittently) these biannual North American Agroforestry conferences for nearly two decades, the characterization of agroforestry as a nascent solution for North American agriculture brings on an uncomfortable feeling of deja vu. It seems to me that politicians, bureaucrats and program leaders, on both sides of the 49th parallel have been drawing similar conclusions about agroforestry’s prospects at every one of these events I’ve attended (and countless other regional, national and international meetings). And not to be overly hypocritical, I too have been guilty at times of swaddling agroforestry in the emerging sectors ‘blanket’, out of the hope that it would attract greater attention from traditional forest and agricultural practitioners.

And this is fundamentally wrong because agroforestry is not new. Or as I often jest, agroforestry is the oldest new idea on the planet. As a traditional and indigenous land use, it has been used in tropical and temperate regions around the globe for millennia. As a conservation-production tool in temperate agriculture (think shelterbelts) it is over a century old. And as an academic subject and organized endeavor under the “agroforestry” banner, it is now decades old. No one, save for those operating on a geologic time scale, could accurately describe agroforestry as new. Perhaps it is ignored, under-utilized, under-recognized and poorly supported and resourced, but it is not new.

Continually characterizing agroforestry as novel seems like politico-speak for “we’ve ignored this issue along time and so we’re going to pretend we just discovered it.”

But for widespread recognition and adoption to occur, agroforestry proponents do not need to put yet another fresh coat of paint on the “Next Big Thing” banner. It’s time to move past talk and more substantively into action. Supportive policies, concrete research, development, and extension efforts are all needed. But more than anything, we need leaders – political, academic and industry – who will understand and vocalize agroforestry as a land use for the NOW and not just the future.

Closing the Local Food System Loop

…by recycling poop.

For several years I’ve been working from a theory that we could be near a radical shift in our primary food production systems – an Agrarian Devolution. Barring the technological leap that brings on a cheap, abundant fuel source, or a massive drop in global population, the combination of high fuel, fertilizer and transportation costs and conservation challenges are making high input, centralized production and distribution less viable. If unhindered, economics will drive agriculture back to its agrarian roots of local production for local consumption. High input costs and high transportation costs should re-establish local food networks as the low-cost option in most areas.

Quality niche and specialty foods aside, the general populace still votes with their wallets. And despite a lot of lip service to local food, that vote is still very much for low cost, convenient options. It is a safe bet to assume therefore, that if (or when) local food starts to trump imported food on a cost basis (albeit with both at a higher nominal level than today) sales will surely follow.

Now, those with libertarian-leanings are probably thinking, ‘market signals will push our food systems back to the local level – stay out of the way and let it happen, end of story, get on with your life.’ But with the politics of food as it is, that shift may not be as simple as sliding along a supply-demand curve. Food is big business, with billions of dollars, rupees, yen, euros and yuan on the line. The existing multi-nationals have a vested interest in squeezing out expansion in local competition. And they have never been above lobbying governments to distort markets in their favour through twisting agricultural subsidy programs – the chief offenders being in the United States of America and the EU. Fifty years from now our food system could look the same as today, if governments are willing to squeeze their citizens for taxes to subsidize cheap food. Large-scale agricultural producers in some regions will continue to win, but the total number of farmers will decline, and small-scale producers would continue to live on the edge of going broke.

I believe, a little foresight and planning is needed to promote efficient, sustainable production. We need to level the playing field with public agricultural policies and support programs that focus on production efficiencies. That is to say, food production is worthy of some public funding, but don’t base that support on the total volume of output or the area in production, but rather the ratio of outputs to inputs. Expand a framework supporting a transition to lower input costs without greatly sacrificing production levels. And this should include closing the production loop in local agriculture systems by returning our food, human and agricultural waste streams back into food and energy production on much larger scale than is currently practiced. Close the loop, recycle your poop.

A few examples of what can be done with existing technology:

1. Mandate phosphorus recovery from every sewage treatment facility. Phosphorus is an essential element for crop production and coincidentally (or maybe not so much) one of the primary water pollutants in the western world. Humans contribute over 3 million tonnes of phosphorus annually to global septic systems. And many technologies already exist to recover phosphorus from sewage, including ‘mouse-trap’ cones developed at the University of British Columbia that pulls this valuable plant nutrient out of sewage effluent and creates a high-quality slow-release fertilizer. Local waste becomes a local resource.

2. Build the infrastructure to create biodiesel from algae fed on sewage water. There are already many private enterprises with viable systems to turn oils extracted from sewage-pond-grown algae into biodiesel. We can use carbon taxes on fossil-fuels to build a network of algae farms and biodiesel plants, and then sell back the fuel to agricultural producers and processors at cost without an accompanying tax. Incentives could also be given for farm-scale algae production ponds utilizing on-site manure and crop wastes to generate some or all of the on-farm energy needs. Again this turns an environmental liability into a production efficiency.

3. Use sewage sludge or waste water to fertilize farm forestry plantations. The trees then become a source of fibre for solid wood products or bioenergy, and can also be placed on-farm to serve soil and water conservation roles. A potential win-win-win solution.

And there are other practical options available too, including biogas generation or mandatory community composting programs that return that valuable humus to build soils. The important first step is removing any incentives that externalize the costs of waste generated in our food systems by letting producers and consumers pollute water with excess nutrients. And then through directed R&D and selective taxation, provide support to production, recovery and regeneration systems that operate at the highest efficiency.

© 2009-2018 by George W. Powell. All Rights Reserved.

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