April 5, 2022

Future of agriculture: New ‘social contract’ proposed by policy research team

Policy-making based on environment, industry growth, and societal benefits
Future of agriculture: New ‘social contract’ proposed by policy research team
Simpson Centre photo library

How will Canada handle the increasing demand for food exports at the same time as we mitigate the environmental impacts of intensive agricultural production?

A multidisciplinary team recruited by The Simpson Centre for Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Calgary is bringing a fresh approach to this question, by introducing the concept of a new “social contract.”

Dr. Guillaume Lhermie, DVM, PhD, director of the Simpson Centre and associate professor of animal health economics and policy at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, is at the forefront of policy discussions aimed at promoting a more collaborative style of 21st-century policy-making. The agriculture sector is fast evolving to protect global food security, ensure crop and animal health, and form a more sustainable relationship with the environment.

Lhermie recruited a multi-disciplinary team to research scientific trade-offs to inform policy-making for the growth of the agri-food sector in Canada, while connecting different audiences and participants to make a new social compact.

Members of the Simpson Centre


Canada is a strong exporter of agri-food products, exporting 40 per cent of its beef production, 76 per cent of its canola oil and 70 per cent of its wheat. Our agri-food sector has significant economic potential, driven by growing global demand.

Yet, agricultural production requires the use of natural resources and therefore cannot exist without an environmental footprint. Avoiding the degradation of natural resources — fertile soil, clean water, and natural pollinators — is a shared priority for producers and all Canadians in achieving the long-term sustainability of Canadian agriculture.

A simple approach is to subsidize sustainable farming practices to ensure widespread adoption. Promising advances in feed additives, such as 3-NOP, show significant potential to reduce methane emissions in cattle. But, novel feed additives face regulatory barriers.

Policy options

In recent years, the agricultural industry has faced stricter and more complex regulations as the public has developed concerns over where their food comes from, how animals are treated prior to processing, and how agriculture is affecting the environment. Food risks dominate the controversies in agriculture, rather than questions about food supply or food security.

According to Lhermie, “It is possible, and pressingly urgent, to define agricultural policies that are not only constraints, but also assets for producers, taking into account the added societal and environmental values that are currently left out of the market.”

We must get familiar with looking at the relative risks of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to environmental and health impacts. Primary agriculture is the source of food on the shelf. If we want to achieve the long-term sustainability of agriculture and improve food security, we need scientific research to help mediate our conversations over future policy-making.

Multi-stakeholder policy-making

In a bid to frame policies from the perspective of multiple stakeholders, Lhermie suggests that an effective approach would be to ensure the prices of agricultural products reflect the environmental benefits derived from farming practices.

“Producers could commit to social and environmental responsibilities, funded by consumers: a new kind of social agreement.”

Next steps, this research group is finding ways to reduce GHG emissions for agriculture. The Simpson Centre is also hosting sector-specific focus groups happening from March to August. Stay tuned as everyday people, the agricultural industry, researchers and policy-makers build bridges to enable multi-stakeholder policy-making.   

Lhermie’s article, “Let’s Not Turn Agriculture into a ‘Tragedy of the Commons,” appeared in The Hill Times on March 22, 2022.