As an agronomist I am bewildered. And I am certain that there are many more like me. I sometimes wonder if we were suitable guides to our farmer friends. Emboldened with scientific knowledge, we dragged them into an impulsive search for productivity and efficiency, which would produce, or so we thought, a better quality of life. All they had to do was invest in expansion and acquire the most recent and up-to-the-minute technologies. Even our vocabulary reflected the favoured shift: farmers were to become agricultural producers, and agriculture, an industry. It was in fact an era that promised a soon to be enjoyed life of leisure. Yet in both cases the dream died and basically crash landed.
Of course, Quebec agriculture is vibrant. Of course, we produce high quality products and as stated in the ministère de l’Agriculture 2005 overview, the bio-food industry has performed enviably with an increase in the GDP of 2.9% in Quebec, compared with 1.1% for the rest of Canada. We’ve achieved some success. But what about quality of life? A recent investigation conducted by La Coop fédérée established, without a doubt, the seriousness of the situation: the psychological distress afflicting agricultural producers has reached a level, as ascertained by other highly mediatised researchers, similar to that of healthcare workers. Burdened by debt, environmental obligations, climate changes, animal disease in the herds, as well as community backlash, farmers are tired and exhausted. Living and making a living has become painful. Did we go down the wrong path?
Let’s not allow ourselves to idealize the past. Even if modern agriculture has some shortcomings that must be dealt with ASAP, let’s not dismiss the many technological advances that produced positive results on the farmer’s quality of life. There are very few who long for the days of pitchforks and hands-on milking. The problem with science and technology – whether applied to agriculture or any other sphere of human activity – is that they are developed in isolation. They are built inside a fortress from which emerge, without distinction, a myriad of discoveries all more interesting and promising than the next. That’s why agronomy, a field of study among so many others, has for a long time been the lone crusader from high above the fortress. Then one day, the drawbridge was lowered to connect us to food, processing and consumption. Hence the benefits of a network approach were discovered.
Today, environmental and social issues are catching up to us. Be forewarned, ethics are just around the corner. From now on, we will be adopting a global approach that will allow for sustainable development.
Back when I was student, it was said that agronomy was a science still in its infancy. Today, it could probably be said that it is emerging from its teen angst phase. Increasingly developing partnerships and seeking alliances with multidisciplinary teams. Realizing that traditional methods are not necessarily obsolete and that new and improved are not always the better choices. It seems that agronomy is becoming more thoughtful and deliberate. Just like most teenagers who thought they knew everything and realized that, in the end, the world has been around long before they were ever born.
What does the future hold for us? No one can really say for sure, but agriculture will undeniably and undoubtedly regain its status. ‘Feed the world’ is much more than a simple slogan. It is a vitally important activity. And because any crisis provides an opportunity to strive for a better future, the hard times faced by farmers today won’t be in vain. These times will be pivotal, producing new techniques that will combine the advantages of modernity with the heritage of tradition. That way, we can produce food and contribute to protecting our heritage and our environment, thanks to means that are more acceptable to society and most likely, less costly for the farmer.
The convergence of disciplines calls upon a new field of work. This is the era of openness. And as they saying goes, the freedom of some ends where the freedom of others begin. So it is only together, as one, that we can build this world we all share.