As the annual megaproject known as spring seeding nears completion, Canadian farmers should take pride in the knowledge that not only will they help feed a hungry world, but they are building the soil for future generations.
In the past 30 years, prairie farmers, researchers and equipment manufacturers developed and put into practice minimum and zero-till seeding.
They are rebuilding the soil fertility, tilth and carbon lost through the farming of previous generations.
Current and future farmers benefit from the improved natural fertility, lower fuel use and reduced erosion.
In recent years they also hoped that society might reward their stewardship because of its benefits in the struggle against climate change.
But the carbon trading systems that were to make this happen have not developed as expected because of political inaction. However, new developments in Australia and Saskatchewan might provide new impetus.
By rebuilding soil organic matter, farmers sequester carbon, a greenhouse gas believed to cause climate change.
In the wake of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, where most of the world’s countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many believed cap and trade systems would be created.
Governments would cap the amount of GHG that a company could emit and it would have to either reduce its emissions or buy carbon credits from others who are lowering their emissions, creating renewable energy or extracting carbon from the air and storing it long term in soil.
Such systems were created in Europe, some U.S. states and Alberta. A North American carbon trading exchange was created in Chicago.
Several companies offered services to prairie farmers to combine their carbon credits to sell into these markets. This has generated millions of dollars in additional income over several years to participating prairie farmers.
But momentum has stalled. Legislation to create a cap and trade system in the United States last year failed to get needed congressional support and the Chicago carbon exchange closed.
In Canada, the Conservative government says it won’t act independently of the U.S. because of the two countries’ closely entwined economies.
Provinces are moving ahead. Manitoba this winter consulted with the public about a cap and trade system. Saskatchewan has already passed environmental legislation allowing for cap and trade, but is working out details before implementing the law.
Provincial systems might succeed, particularly if employed in regional systems. But nation-wide systems would be better.
Australia, often seen as a laggard in climate change action, along with Canada and the U.S., might provide guidance.
The minority Labour government there, supported by the Greens, is planning to put a fixed price tax on carbon as the first step toward an emission trading scheme.
Farming and forestry would be exempt from the tax but would begin a national carbon trading system beginning in July where farmers could be paid for carbon sequestration as well as practices that reduce methane emission from livestock, reduce fertilizer emissions and effectively manage manure.
Practices that reduce GHG emissions usually have other long-term benefits:
• zero till sequesters carbon, improves soil fertility and reduces fuel costs;
• more efficient feed use in cattle reduces methane production and lowers producers’ costs.
Widespread adoption of successful carbon trading schemes would provide financial incentives farmers need to adopt these practices more quickly and drive research that would garner even greater future benefits.
Bruce Dyck, Terry Fries, Barb Glen, D’Arce McMillan and Joanne Paulson collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.