Agriculture is not a carbon villain: producer

Manitoba farmer says the federal government isn’t taking into account carbon stored in seeds of grain, oilseeds and pulses

The math for greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t make sense, says a farmer and engineer from Manitoba.

Canada’s agriculture industry produces about 60 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually, in carbon dioxide equivalents, based on Agriculture Canada data. But the National Inventory Report (NIR), which counts greenhouse gas emissions and sinks, doesn’t include the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide stored within grains and oilseeds.

Fraser McPhee, who farms near Dauphin, studied the amount of carbon stored in the 94 million tonnes of grains, oilseeds and pulses that Canadian farmers produced in 2017. He estimates those grains stored 100 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents.

If that carbon storage was included in the calculations, Canada’s agriculture industry would have net carbon capture of 33 million tonnes of CO2 equivalents, meaning that farmers removed 33 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere in 2017.

“I wanted to have the real story … of agriculture’s carbon capture and emissions,” said McPhee, who has been researching carbon emissions from agriculture for about two years.

“The overall intent is to acknowledge that when products leave the farmgate, farmers have captured more CO2 equivalent in those products than all the emissions combined to make those products.”

The 33 million tonne number comes from 60 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, 14 million tonnes from fuel used in the agriculture and forestry industries, seven million tonnes stored in soils and 100 million tonnes stored in grains. Hence, a net storage of 33 million CO2 equivalents.

McPhee presented his data at the Keystone Agricultural Producers annual meeting earlier this month in Winnipeg. After a 30 minute discussion, KAP members passed several resolutions supporting McPhee’s position, including:

  • That KAP promote the agriculture sector in Canada as net-zero emissions, with an excess net capture of 33 million tonnes CO2 equivalent per year (2017).
  • That KAP monitor the NIR agriculture sector emission numbers each year and promote the amount of carbon stored in grain, vegetables and meat products by farmers, in addition to carbon sequestered in cropland.

McPhee became interested in the topic because he wanted to change the narrative around farming and climate change.

“As farmers, we need a story that talks about how we’re taking care of emissions, within our sector. This (storage in grains) is that story.”

Before returning to the family farm in 2015, McPhee worked for 18 years as a bio-systems engineer in the pharmaceutical and petroleum industries.

At the KAP meeting, he had a binder loaded with information about greenhouse gas monitoring and emissions.

Using information from the binder, he explained how much carbon is stored in oilseeds and how much in grains.

Using his numbers, one tonne of cereal grain production stores about one tonne of CO2. And 0.8 tonne of canola stores one tonne of CO2.

Dean Harder, a producer from Lowe Farm, Man., questioned the 100 million tonnes figure for CO2 stored in grains and oilseeds.

McPhee explained that he consulted with university experts and the estimate is “conservative.”

“I didn’t use fibre, protein, lipids and minerals, (which) are part of the grain. I assumed zero carbon when in fact there is a lot of carbon in there.”

There is precedent for this sort of accounting, McPhee added.

Canada’s fertilizer industry reduces its greenhouse gas emission calculations by including the amount of carbon it stores in urea.

“They get credit for capturing carbon in their carbon-containing products like urea,” he said.

“They’re able to reduce their emissions by a certain amount…. When those carbon-containing fertilizers come to agriculture, that’s an emission for farmers.”

One university expert disagrees with McPhee’s analysis.

Canada follows international protocols for tracking carbon emissions. Those protocols do not count storage and release of carbon that’s part of a loop.

“Topics such as this were discussed in the late ’80s and early ’90s when governments were figuring out how to count carbon from human sources,” said Mario Tenuta, University of Manitoba soil scientist. “Agreement was that for items that are a loop such as photosynthesis (storage of carbon in grains) and respiration (release of carbon in grains through consumption, digestion and breathing), there is no net change in CO2 emissions (cancel out). Therefore, it is not of interest to count the CO2 because the emissions and storage are zero.”

The purpose of the NIR is to determine human-caused changes in carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane emissions, Tenuta added.

“If Canada wanted to grow grains, take them and bury them deep in the earth to be stored for the long-term, then we are obligated to report that grain carbon as a sequestration.”

Tenuta shared his expertise with KAP when he spoke with the group’s environment and land-use committee in 2019.

At the annual meeting, KAP members voted in favour of McPhee’s concept and it’s now the organization’s policy.

Several KAP leaders said they plan to raise this issue at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture annual meeting, which will be held next week in Ottawa.

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