Mid-February 2022, the Québec government announced a new approach regarding sustainable practices in agriculture. As of 2022, growers can be paid for specific practices regarding protection of the environment. The program is planned for three crop seasons (2022- 2024) and a total amount of $50,000 is available for each registered grower. This new approach fits into the sustainable plan for agriculture adopted in 2020 and ending in 2030.
Growers can have access to money by working on five major categories:
- Increasing crop rotation
- Increasing cover crops in winter
- Decreasing pesticide use
- Using corn seed without any insecticidal seed treatment
- Planting areas that help biodiversity
In one or more of the categories, growers must determine their goals. When complete, the compensation will be based on the improved area. Depending on the impact of the practice, the gain can be higher or lower. To have access to three years of funding, a farm needs to increase the goals by 10 per cent each year.
The most interesting part of the program is that sustainable practices can be compensated. This is radically changing the approach. Now a grower can target sustainable goals and depend on receiving money if performed according to plan.
Is the program worth it? At first sight, I would say yes!
March 7th: This was the first day of registration for the program. Less than 48 hours later, all the funds were booked by more than 1,800 growers. This is less than 10 percent of the total farms in the province! I think this shows that growers are ready to put significant efforts into sustainable agriculture. Achieving specific goals is easy to evaluate and that is a good thing. No evaluation is required before or after. It is simple: no paper, no consultant, no expert needed, just positive acts.
But now, what are the challenges?
First, sustainable practices do not address all crops. A lot of energy has been put into corn and soybeans. This is a bit frustrating for growers already involved in sustainable agriculture in other crops. An improved program should be refined to cover more practices in more crops. Even if it’s less than 10 per cent of the farms involved in this first round, it will be interesting to see how many acres are covered.
For growers outside the program not receiving compensation, they will need agronomic support. It is important that these growers can count on experts. The benefits of some practices take time to be profitable and it is essential that these growers are supported.
In the sustainable plan for agriculture adopted in 2020, reduction of pesticides has the most commitment compared to other practices. In fact, the two major targets are reducing 40 per cent of the health and environment risk index of pesticides applied.
Risk indexes are specific to Québec. The Health Risk Index (HRI) and Environment Risk Index (ERI) have been created to compare different pesticides on a health and environmental basis. HRI and HRE are the result of a complex calculation considering numerous factors such as toxicity, formulation, rate of application, type of spraying, chemical and physical properties and so on. The result is a number for each index for any pesticide. The higher the number, the higher the risk.
HRI goes from one to 2420 and ERI goes from one to 961. The objective is to lower the amount of pesticides sold yearly by 500,000 kilograms. These two commitments are based on 2006-2008 pesticide statistics.
These are huge numbers, considering that in 2019, the amount of pesticides sold was around 400,000 kg higher than the 2006-2008 reference. With more than 3.4 million kg of pesticides sold in 2019, this means a need to reduce the sales by 25 per cent of those in 2019! When considering climate change, the risk of new pests and resistance to pesticides, growers will have to perform a great job to achieve that goal!
On the pesticide risks index side, I would say the picture is better. Data from 2019 show a decrease of the health index by 25 per cent and by 10 per cent for the environment. The previous goal was to decrease the two risk indexes by 25 per cent. Now, the target is 40 per cent decrease for 2030. We can estimate that the Québec agronomists’ prescriptions for some pesticides such as atrazine, chlorpyrifos and neonicotinoids will be much fewer, helping to achieve the target. In addition, ending the use of some pesticides with higher toxicity will contribute to a good decrease in the risk index. Perhaps achieving a 40 per cent lower index will be more difficult on the environmental side.
Since 2014, I have been working with potato growers to lower their HRI and ERI and I can see the same effect. It is easier to reduce the health index and it is the same result in other trials and in other crops. When considering my field work with growers, I am questioning if lowering both indexes by 40 per cent is realistic.
Finally, even if all the goals are not easy to achieve, the good news is that growers can expect to be compensated for practices that have a social impact. This is a huge gain for growers asking for this program for a long time. Seeing how fast the funds have been booked for this first round, I really think this will put pressure on the Québec government to put in place a long-term compensation program.
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