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Opinion: Farm economic aspect often ignored

Profitability is as important as it is for any other business.
The author writes that farmers can, and will, adopt more environmentally sustainable practices, but not at a cost to the economic health of their family or business.

The term “environmental sustainability” frequently lacks definition, though it is widely used by governments, media, retailers and environmental non-governmental organizations.

We use the term in our research, where we demonstrate with evidence how environmental sustainability has changed, for better or worse. However, the term has been over-used and often lacks meaning or value.

The term is frequently applied to methods, processes and technologies that are used to produce food. The European Union is using its broadness and lack of definition to its advantage in the EU Farm to Fork Strategy. It advocates for significant and negative changes in food production, all in the name of improved environmental sustainability.

The strategy trades economics for what the EU deems will be environmental sustainability. Often, governments, media and ENGOs fail to appreciate that without economic sustainability, there will be no environmental sustainability in food production.

Farming and food production are a business. Farms are not hobbies or lifestyle choices. Owning and operating a farm is a multimillion-dollar business, where profitability is as important as it is for any other business.

A common perspective is that farmers would gladly accept lower profits to provide environmental benefits to society. But which business owner would gladly accept lower profits? Would you gladly lower your salary? No, who would?

That is why EU farmers are increasingly frustrated with the F2F. Protests across the EU have been held in Berlin, Paris, Rome and other locations.

Regulations are often targeted directly at farmers rather than at others in the industry or consumers.

For example, the Canadian government’s announcement of a nitrogen fertilizer greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 30 per cent was targeted directly at farmers. It was quickly and correctly pointed out by both the fertilizer and agriculture industries that the only way this is possible is to use less fertilizer.

It was additionally estimated that if this reduction was enacted, farmers would lose $48 billion in farm revenue between 2023 and 2030.

Fertilizer is used to help crops grow, so a reduction in use would lower food production in Canada. If a farm produces less food, it would have lower sales and, most likely, lower profits.

Many in government, media and society saw no issue with this, not realizing that lower yields result in higher food prices.

Canadian farms are already sustainable producers of food. This has been achieved by adoption of innovative products and technologies such as variable rate input application equipment and genetically modified crops.

The decision to adopt these products and technologies is predominantly economic and was made without dictating policy or legislation. It has also improved sustainable practices on farms.

No one in society would willingly take a cut in their income. Yet, this is what environmental policy advocacy is asking farmers to do. Farmers are willing to do their part to mitigate the impacts of climate change, but not if the policy dictates lower farm income.

Many involved in discussions on environmental sustainability need to acknowledge the advances already achieved by Canadian farmers due to gains in economic sustainability. Farmers can, and will, adopt more environmentally sustainable practices, but not at a cost to the economic health of their family or business.

Those advocating for greater environmental sustainability need to heed this fundamental aspect because without economic sustainability, there will be no improvement in environmental sustainability.

Stuart Smyth is an associate professor and Agri-Food Innovation and Sustainability Enhancement Chair in the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. This column has been edited for length.