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American satirist H.L. Mencken provided the classic quote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Sometimes, a complex problem demands a complex solution—and modern agriculture is a perfect example.

Historically, science focused on one variable at a time to see how changing a single factor would have an impact on the bigger system. Agricultural research led the way in the 20th century by developing elegant statistical designs for its field experiments so that the influence of a single variable (fertilizer rate, cultivar, crop sequence, pest control) could be quantified, and recommendations made based on that variable’s impact on yield. This was a very effective approach to identify “big hammers” for dramatically increased crop production.

Over the last decade, however, the agricultural community has introduced more complex solutions—system-based and agro-ecological approaches to developing cropping regimes that are economically and environmentally sustainable. Our industry (producers, input suppliers, researchers, governments, producer organizations) “talks a good game” about how we have turned the corner and are engaged in integrated management practices. The question is whether we have really adopted this approach.

I recently attended a global agricultural biotechnology meeting where one recurring theme was the impact of glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth on southern U.S. agriculture. Producers kept applying glyphosate with such selective pressure that resistant weeds have now taken over millions of acres in the United States. U.S. Department of Agriculture research leader Stephen Duke (using data from the United States and from Hugh Beckie, research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) observed that Canada enjoyed a much longer period between the introduction of herbicide-resistant crops and the observation of herbicide-resistant weeds. His explanation was that our first transgenic canola systems used a number of herbicide plat- forms rather than only glyphosate—proof positive that a complex, multipronged approach is often the more effective choice in the long run.

Agricultural researchers, input suppliers and the production community have long celebrated the simple solution: All we need to do is find the highest-paying crop, the best cultivar, the best fertilizer rate, the best crop protection product, and everything will be fine.

We can be proud of the amazing productivity gains we’ve experienced in agriculture. These results have been achieved through research, which has given us technologies that allow us to use easy, predictable practices that make us ever more efficient.

However, if yield is the cumulative result of crop genetics, climate and management decisions, shouldn’t we consider our options for managing crops in an integrated manner? Perhaps it is time to think about incorporating “old” ideas like multilines (different cultivars in the same field), intercropping (different crops in the same field) or expanding our growing season through more winter crops—or perhaps even introducing permaculture crops. I recognize that these take us back to agricultural practices that have been eclipsed by modern practices. I am not advocating that we revert to a different time, but it may be worth thinking about how traditional management practices— including grain legumes, managing beneficial insects and better understanding the likely growing-season weather—can be further integrated into how we grow crops in Canada.

We have a model of where these answers can be generated. The Broadbalk plots (data collected since 1844) at the Rothamsted research farm in England, the University of Illinois’s Morrow continuous corn plots (1876), and our own University of Alberta Breton plots (started in 1929) provide a window on how our past and current practices influence our future potential productivity. These sites provide a “living laboratory” for a wide array of researchers—entomologists, soil scientists, plant breeders, economists and many others.

Long-term agronomic experiments have fallen out of favour with funding agencies and some research organizations. The industry and the research community need to work together to enhance our current activities and identify new ways to harvest data from the work we do in a more collaborative, intentional manner whenever field experimentation is planned. The result will be new ideas that producers will be able to incorporate into their operations to improve long-term productivity and sustainability.


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