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Water Today Title April 14, 2024
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Update 2022/2/6
Climate Change

brought to you in part by

Noah Trekker

Living Labs Initiative: Agricultural Climate Solutions
Interview with Francois Chrétien, Associate Director Living Laboratories,
Science and Technology Branch Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

WT: There seems to be more interest in watersheds now than I ever remember. The level of education in watersheds has skyrocketed, so this is good timing for you. Thanks for doing this, Francois.

Francois Chrétien: My pleasure. As I mentioned I am always pleased to share information about this initiative, it is pretty close to my heart, I'm pleased to join, thanks for your interest.

WT: Can you tell me specifically what this program is about, why is there so much money involved, and what's at stake here?

Chrétien: There are two different programs: the Living Lab Initiative, which is ongoing, started back in 2018 and will end in 2023. 

This is the Living Lab initiative that is financing the four ongoing Living Labs that we have. 

And now we have the Agricultural Climate Solutions program. This has a funding component of $185M that will establish Living Labs

across the country. This program started in April 2021 and will run until 2031. We have ten years in front of us to establish a pan-Canadian network of Living Labs that will tackle climate change issues, along with other agri-environmental issues, such as soil health, water quality, and biodiversity.

WT: From your point of view, what does biodiversity mean? To someone who doesn't farm, what do we need to know about this?

Chrétien: For us, in the context of our initiatives, it means increasing biodiversity on the agricultural landscape, and

that starts with the soil microbiome. We have different soil practices that can enhance the number of micro-organisms that live in the soil and increase their diversity.

At the field and landscape level, it also means the type of birds that may be in the fields, for example, if we plow a field we may conflict with the nesting of specific species of birds. Also, pollinators, are a key issue in terms of biodiversity and agriculture productivity.

Those broad categories are examples of what we mean by improving biodiversity on the agricultural landscape.

We do have work ongoing in the Manitoba Living Lab project, where we constructed a water retention pond with the primary objective to improve water quality. In the surrounding area, there was a team of scientists working with Swan Lake First Nation that is the owner of the land and key participant in the project, looking at plant species that would attract native pollinators. This is a dual beneficial impact, quite interesting in this case.

WT: If I am a watershed steward, can I get in on this too? There are many groups, First Nations lands, there are farmers, there are small towns, what would this mean to a farmer, what does this mean to each, why would the farmers participate in the Living Labs?

Chrétien: Living Lab is based on three core principles:

The first, is user-centered innovation, meaning producers have to be key participants in the Living Labs. Producers are in the driver's seat, they do collaborate with scientists and stakeholders in the co-development of best management practices (BMP's) that would fit their needs, and improve agri-environmental issues. It's their own reality that is brought to the table. 

The second principle is broad partnerships. The Living Labs model is based on a very significant number of partners working together, from the producers themselves, producer organizations, non-governmental organizations, including watershed organizations. We do have quite a few watershed organizations participating and leading some of our projects. There are also local governments, provincial and federal governments involved.

The third key pillar of the Living Lab is to conduct those scientific activities on real farms with real producers. Meaning, stepping away from our experimental farm where we have much more control, but that may not reflect the variability, complexity, and diversity that is found on the real farm.

From the producers' standpoint, it would mean working closely with scientists and other stakeholders to co-develop the solutions, or BMPs that are scientifically sound but also make sense to them in the real-life producing environment. 

What are the technical barriers to adopting those practices from a producers' standpoint? Are they desirable? Are they viable from an economic perspective? The key benefit needs to be toward the farmer and the environment, toward an accelerated adoption rate of those BMPs. The producer is central in this approach, as compared to a more traditional approach where they are consulted at the beginning, then science is conducted and they are given the result at the end.

In the Living Labs model, farmers participate throughout the project, in the co-development process to come up with the practices that will be tested on their field, to provide early feedback, to refine the practices, implement them into the next season, and this iterative process continues until the practice is ready for broad-scale adoption.

WT: Sounds like a pilot project to see what process works, to be rolled out later in a cross-Canada program? Is that accurate?

Chrétien: There is a bit of confusion here between the actual iterative approach and the adoption of specific BMPs.

Let's say, for example, we want to develop a new intercropping practice for potatoes in PEI, there is an iterative process to co-develop that specific practice, to make it fit with producer needs, and also test if the agricultural practice positively impacts the quality of the environment.

We are in the process of scaling up the number of sites across the country, so there is a regional perspective in each Living Labs, with practices that make sense for the region, and also targeted to the broad objectives for ACS: carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation.

WT: When you talk of carbon sequestering, I think of huge amounts of money, huge equipment, huge storage facilities but this is more aimed at sequestering carbon in the soil itself, is that accurate?

Chrétien: Yes, we are looking into the practices that will increase the carbon stored in agricultural soils, so it's not about infrastructure at all.

WT: WaterToday covers surface water matters, blue-green, red algae, etc. Is part of this program trying to get phosphate and nitrogen out of the water bodies, or less going into the water bodies? Where do nutrients going into water bodies play into this?

Chrétien: This is absolutely part of the project. The four ongoing Living Labs (MB, ON, QC, PEI) all have objectives to mitigate the impact of agriculture on water quality: obviously controlling phosphorous and nitrogen is key. As you know, phosphorous is the limiting factor for algae growth in freshwater, while in the ocean it is nitrogen.

For example, in PEI they are looking at different crop rotations to mitigate the exportation of both phosphorous and nitrogen towards the watercourse, 

There are small watershed-scale experiments that are being conducted, monitoring exercises are conducted along with the Dept of Fisheries and Oceans to see the impact on surface water not only on freshwater but also what is being exported to the ocean.

In Quebec, there is work on intercropping, and on riparian buffer zones. In Ontario, there is work on cover cropping, on inter-cropping, all with the common purpose of better managing the amount of nutrients coming out of agricultural fields.

It's true also for the example I gave before, around the water retention structure in Manitoba. These are a few specific examples from those projects.

WT: How long will these programs last? Anything in agriculture seems to take many seasons to prove that something is working or not. Will these programs extend long enough to gather all the data we need? I would like to hear about the participation of the federal scientists, how long would you like this initiative to go, and where do the federal scientists fit into the projects?

Chrétien: Thanks for the question because this is really at the heart of the model. 

The way the program has been set up is for our scientists to come on board and support the goals of those external organizations that lead each project. So through the ACS a group that will lead a consortium of partners which may include non-profit organizations like watershed organizations,

First Nations, producer groups; can request contribution funding and federal scientific support. If they do, we internally mobilize our scientific capacity, we appoint a lead scientist to support the project. It may mean going out to collect soil samples to see the evolution of carbon over time in agricultural fields, measuring the impact of the practices that have been implemented.

This is happening right now, we are mobilizing our internal scientists, and others, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and others federal scientists, from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), ECCC, DFO, etc. By leveraging these scientists we support those organizations that request federal scientific support from National Research Council, ECCC, DFO, etc. By leveraging these scientists we support those organizations that request federal scientific support.

As for how long these programs will last, when we first launched the Living Labs initiative, we were on a five-year time frame. It is true there is an environmental lag before we can see the impact on the landscape. We are refocusing a bit, with the ACS program, we got funding for the next 10 years. This is quite significant. For now, we have funding under ACS up until 2031, giving us a time window that is more appropriate to evaluate the evolution of different environmental parameters over time.

WT: This is a great answer and leads to the next question. There are a lot of people in Canada saying we are not doing nearly enough, we aren't trying hard enough to sequester carbon, we aren't going to meet our climate goals. Can you speak to that? I am looking to encourage people to get involved with carbon sequestering, and trying to point out where we as a country can do more, where we can catch up in our lagging policies?

Chrétien:: This initiative is certainly part of the government's response, part of our overall climate objectives, which are to achieve a 30% reduction below the 2005 levels by 2030, and these targets have now been enhanced to a 40-45% reduction below the 2005 levels by 2030. This is growing across the country in the agriculture sector, to help achieve our net emissions targets while also addressing environmental co-benefits related to water quality, soil health, and biodiversity. It is identified as a key priority for the government.

This is not the only program; we have other programs such as the Agricultural Clean Technology program. The Agricultural Climate Solutions - Living Labs stream is meant to mobilize a large number of stakeholders in every province, to have at least one project in all of the Canadian provinces where we work in a partnership approach to co-develop solutions to sequester carbon, that's exactly what we are trying to achieve.

WT: I see there is a fertilizer company involved in the PEI Living Lab project. At WaterToday we hear about the new biodiversity thinking, including decreasing the use of standard phosphorous and nitrogen fertilizers. There is a whole sector up and coming in agriculture-related to increasing bio-diversity not using so much standard N and P, I wonder, would you encourage people across the country to look into alternative fertilizers, that get the soil to accept more carbon, to get the soil to breathe, what is your view on this?

Chrétien: Obviously better nutrient management has to be part of the solution, not only for water quality but also this is good for producers themselves. Any loss of nutrients to the atmosphere or water is a financial loss to producers. We are looking at things like variable rate application in time and space, to match the nutrient applications with the crop need; and by doing so we will mitigate the amount of nutrient running off or gassing off.

In terms of alternative fertilizer, composting is definitely part of the practices that we are looking at, it has some great potential. I think we need to consider all the innovative approaches, in order to continue to evolve as a sector, so we are not using one against the other, not completely replacing a standard nutrient management approach with something completely new; there is innovation on both sides that needs to happen.

WT: If you would express to our viewers, what we all could do to help? We all work in various places, behind the scenes, some are far out in farm fields and some in the labs, I am hoping to get some words of encouragement for people out there who might be looking at too much phosphorous in their lake, who might be thinking about carbon sequestering, tell us what we can do to help.

Chrétien: The keyword in our new Agricultural Climate Solutions program title is Solutions. We must shift the way we think about agriculture, we have the potential to be part of the solution.

We occupy a significant place in the landscape, and we have to be good stewards of the land, producers realize that.

Working in that collaborative, partnership approach with key players: scientists yes, but also farmers, local organizations, local experts, agronomists, bringing all of those together, in a partnership approach, working on real farms on real landscape, with real environmental issues, such as water quality.

This is where we will start moving away from the dichotomy that puts one sector against the other, for instance, the agriculture sector against environmental organizations.

This is happening in the Living Labs.

In PEI we have watershed organizations working together with industry groups, the potato growers working with soil scientists, with biodiversity experts, all working together toward the common goal.

We need a common vision and a way to work together if we want to achieve the environmental benefits, to create an agriculture sector that is sustainable.

WT: Francois, I want to thank you for doing this, we appreciate what you do.


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