Agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in Canada are projected to rise by 2030 and that should concern the entire sector, said both an economist and a farmer/climate scientist during a post-federal budget webinar.
The budget allocated $270 million to agricultural initiatives that can also serve as climate solutions.
Karen Ross, director of Farmers for Climate Solutions, the organization that successfully recommended the funding, said there are just nine growing seasons left in which to meet the country’s Paris climate commitments and farmers have to be part of the solution.
“Addressing climate change is both urgent and an imperative for our sector,” she said during the webinar organized by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute. “It’s no longer just environmentalists or scientists who are leading the charge on this. It’s also our market.”
Global companies such as General Mills and McDonald’s are establishing sustainability commitments and will rely on farmers as key suppliers.
Ross, who grows vegetables, fruit and flowers in the Laurentians, said farmers are among those most impacted by climate change.
“If farmers don’t quickly innovate to change practice to reduce emissions we may risk losing market share and competitiveness,” she said. “The question for me then is no longer ‘do we need to change’, and I don’t think it’s even any longer ‘how can we change’ because there’s proven practices… the real question we need to ask ourselves if what kind of support do we need to be able to transition to lower greenhouse gases, lower emission practices.”
Agricultural economist Al Mussell said the market demands are going beyond what some would call a consumer niche.
“We’re getting export customers that are going to blanket require certain standards,” he said.
Ross said other countries directly support farmers to adopt sustainable practices far more than Canada does. Canada spends about 70 cents per acre, while the United States spends about $8.47 per acre, and the European Union spends $51.75 per acre.
“In my opinion this lack of proactive investment (in Canada) is actually leading to much more expensive consequences,” she said.
Providing the right kind of support can sustain farmers while reducing emissions, she said.
Mussell, research lead at Agri-Food Economic Systems, said he is puzzled about the projected two-megatonne increase in agricultural emissions because the sector has so much mitigation ability.
The numbers are included in a government document called A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy. It used modelling to show emissions dropping in oil and gas, electricity, transportation, heavy industry, buildings, waste and a category called land use, land use change and forestry, but climbing in agriculture.
Mussell said the agriculture column is essentially enteric fermentation and emissions, fertilizer and some soil emissions.
Energy and emissions from fuels are contained in the energy segment.
“One of the questions that is going to come up here is what is the capacity of prairie soils?” Mussell said.
But he also said he is concerned that national aggregate data doesn’t tell the entire story.
“As you’re watching a carcass go by on the rail, or a bushel of grain, that doesn’t mean that that bushel of grain had any particular spec relevant to that aggregate number,” he said. “It’s difficult to toggle between the two of them and the information bundle that goes with the products that are produced in a particular way relative to that big aggregate number that will be recognized in the Paris accord.”
Mussell said this raises the question of intensification.
“Probably the least sustainable thing we can do is take pristine land and convert it,” he said. “So what that means is we have to find ways to manage our carbon emissions and increase yields, whether it’s a crop or daily gains and feed conversion in livestock.”
Ross said it isn’t easy for farmers to change practices. Management decisions come with risks and costs. She said that’s why Farmers For Climate Solutions focused on reasonably achievable programs, such as cover crop use and nitrogen management.
She pointed to research out of Manitoba that suggests nitrogen use could be reduced by 20 percent without impacting yield. That won’t be the same on every farm, but it would mean less cost to the farmer and lower emissions.
Mussell said mitigating emissions is costly but the alternative could be worse.
“We also have to think about the cost of doing nothing,” he said. “I think we’re coming to the realization that the cost of doing nothing is exceptionally high.”