Producers and researchers argue that the agricultural industry has already taken steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Farmers might soon have to deal with a worldwide political push to take more action on climate change.
The recent climate change summit in Paris, and a new Liberal government in Ottawa that has vowed to make it a priority, has brought added urgency to an issue long considered less important by the previous Conservative government.
The COP21/United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris has taken a new approach to establishing climate change targets.
“This time what they’re going to do, so they say, is try to create a different kind of framework in which they won’t impose or make any attempt to impose targets on countries,” said Jeremy Rayner, director of the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy.
“Countries will come forward with targets on their own.”
In Canada, prime minister Justin Trudeau has said he wants to work with the provinces on targets by meeting with premiers, who have told him they want to draw up their own climate change strategy for a bottom-up approach.
The Alberta government recently announced that it will implement a carbon tax, and British Columbia already has one.
“In some ways, for agriculture it is unfortunate that we’ve moved to the carbon tax because if we had a cap and trade system, then saved emissions would be counted as credits that could be sold,” Rayner said.
Purple gas and diesel used for agriculture are exempt from the carbon tax in B.C., and it is also ex-pected to be exempt in Alberta.
However, Manitoba recently announced that it would stick with a carbon cap-and-trade program for its climate change plan.
Even with carbon taxes being brought into the equation, agriculture still has a lot of opportunities to reduce its impact on the environment.
Many prairie producers took measures to help the environment decades ago by shifting to zero and minimal tillage and restoring shelter belts and waterways.
Tim Nerbas, director with the Sask-atchewan Soil Conservation Association, said 70 percent of Saskatchewan farmland is under direct seeding or a low soil disturbance system.
“We’re actually removing carbon from the system and we’re storing it back in the soil because when the soil was first broke, a lot of carbon was released for the agriculture of the day,” he said.
However, Nerbas said harmful practices, such as broadcasting nitrogen, appear to be returning.
He said it’s concerning because it leaves nutrients in the fertilizer on top of the soil, which then run off and end up in water systems and the atmosphere.
Jeff Schoenau, a professor in the U of S’s soil science department, said farmers should use the four Rs of fertilizer management: the right rate, the right source, the right time and the right place.
It means using GPS technology to place exact amounts of fertilizer where it is needed most.
Having a diversified crop rotation also helps build organic matter in the soil.
Schoenau said management practices that increase yields will generally enhance carbon sequestration in the soil.
“By increasing photosynthesis in the whole agricultural system, invariably some of that carbon that is fixed by plants in photosynthesis gets returned back to the soil in the form of dead roots and unharvested crops and crop residue,” he said.
High yielding crops can also be good for reducing cattle’s impact on the environment.
Reynold Bergen, science director with the Beef Cattle Research Council, said improving crop yields is important because producing forage and feeding from fewer acres lowers farmers’ environmental footprint
As well, he said anything that improves feed efficiency for cattle will help reduce their impact on the environment.
Feeding cattle grain instead of grass can reduce their impact on the environment because they can digest grain more efficiently, said Bergen.
Producers should also consult veterinarians or nutritionists to make sure cattle are getting the right balance of nutrients from their food.
Cattle also help the environment by grazing, but Bergen said it should be on a healthy pasture.
“That healthy pasture also has healthy roots, and those roots are a natural form of carbon sequestration,” he said.
“Roots are bigger and healthier in healthy plants than they are in overgrazed pastures, and so maintaining healthy pastures is really key, of course.”
It’s still not clear how the current political spotlight on climate change will affect agriculture, but experts agree that best management practices can help producers mitigate agriculture’s environmental footprint.