Broad questions and emergent specific options

Sarah Rotz and Ralph C. Martin

The first circle process was organized around a set of broad questions concerning agriculture, sustainability and climate change. To begin, we asked the following questions: 1. From your perspective, how could the food system sustainably produce, process and distribute food and also generate resilience in the face of climate change? 2. How can we address climate change and keep food affordable for low income people?

Detailed notes were taken during the discussion sessions. Following the first circle process, the team reviewed the notes to establish recurrent themes, which we defined as a topic that occurs regularly but is not necessarily named by a majority. It does, however, need to be directly or indirectly referenced by many participants. Soil health, loss, and accountability, as well as the fundamental role that soil plays in agriculture and sustainability, were referenced across 6 of the 8 themes. Additionally, soil health was identified as a significant concern for a number of participants. Specifically, while some participants were encouraged by farmers growing interest in soil health, many emphasized that soil organic matter (SOM) has been declining for decades. Participants acknowledged that little is being done to incentivize building SOM. Instead, a small number of crops are being subsidized by government, which encourages short rotations and discourages diversification—a key determinant of soil health in agricultural production.

Once the themes from the first circle process were reviewed by the research team, it became clear that soil health had emerged as a prominent theme throughout the discussion. The research team then discussed ways to prioritize the topic of soil health in the second circle process. As a result, we began the second circle with the following: In the last session, everyone seemed to agree that maintaining or improving soil quality is important. We then wondered what this might look like in each sector of the agi-food system. The following question was used to guide the discussion: If there were no financial limitations, how would you use your current position to advance (via awareness, ag practices etc.) improved soil quality, as a key part of addressing climate change? During the discussion sessions, there was a focus on the need to allow for context and system specific solutions that acknowledge the economic barriers to building soil health, as opposed to general best practices. As well, participants described the need to develop and promote solutions for different scales, i.e., micro to landscape. Broadly, concerns around economic and market barriers for building soil health and integrating forages and perennials were repeatedly discussed. During the second circle, solutions for building soil health were outlined. In order to hone in on solutions in more detail, we then used the ‘solutions’ content from circle two to shape the process for the third circle.

For the third circle, we focused the topic on potential policy options for the agri-food sector to maintain or improve healthy soil. To do so, we began by asking the group to discuss, “if we achieved soil health in 40 years, what would it look like?” We then honed in on the most commonly raised suggestions (top 8) to accelerate soil health. To determine the degree of support and consensus for different policy options, we asked the group to discuss whether there were any policy/program options that they recognized as having the potential for all participants to support? (i.e. What is the one broad policy/program option that you most prefer to support? What policy/program option are you least inclined to support?). Within the group there was at least majority support for the following four broad policy options.

  • Changing how we support perennial agriculture, including fruit and nut bearing trees
  • Designating compost and mulch as on-farm products
  • Measuring SOM in every field in Ontario, every five years
  • Paying farmers to sequester carbon in soil

Several preferred to see the third option combined with another option of supporting more soil testing and requiring an audited performance on soil health in lease agreements. This latter option did not receive majority support on its own. Some concern was expressed about how the fourth option would be rolled out or implemented.

There were mixed responses, and certainly curiosity, for the option of paying experienced farmers with good soil health on their farms to mentor inexperienced farmers or those who need to improve soil health. Overall this option fell into the ‘perhaps’ category. There was not majority support for the option of implementing WWII style government interventions that are updated for soil health today. Neither was there majority support, given the information available, for the option of finding a way to recycle nutrients in sewage.

The emergent specific policy options related to soil health were selected by the research team, in part, to help focus the final circle discussion of the overall group. This was somewhat in response to those in the group who wanted to address more specific issues that might have more immediate repercussions, than the general topics addressed in the first circle. Although soil health themes were not the only themes to rise in the first two circles it was clear that circle participants from across the agri-food sector understood its relevance and how it is connected to many other themes and concerns. The other themes are also documented in notes of the first two circle events and were also used to inform soil health vision and strategy documents developed later by the research team. Policy options raised in the group were also compared to current policy options in Canada and other jurisdictions.

A final observation of the researchers is that it is difficult for busy people to commit to an exploratory process that may not result in a tangible change or that is not directly addressing the many urgent and/or important issues they need to address. It is our expectation that participants and their organizations will consider the circle process as a useful approach when confronting urgent and/or important issues within their organization or across the agri-food sector. Based on the responses of participants there is reason to hypothesize that the circle process can integrate broad understandings with specific issues in a way that will clarify specific agreements and what remains to be resolved.