Farmers need climate change policies

This is the second part of a two-part look at climate change and agriculture. Part one, “What to know about climate change,” can be found here.

Unless we act quickly to curb climate change, temperatures on the Canadian Prairies will rise 6 degrees C this century. If we allow such devastating temperature increases to occur, no sector in Canada will be harder hit than agriculture.

Our farms are vulnerable, but agriculture — like every other sector of the Canadian economy — is also a source of the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

Farming and farm-input production contribute about 11 percent of the Canadian total — and agricultural emissions are rising.

Farmers want to do our part. We want to take a lead role in contributing to a Canadian emissions-reduction solution. Many producers are already taking steps on their farms to reduce energy use and emissions. But we need governments to act as partners. Here are eight government policies and programs we need to support farmers in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while increasing margins and net incomes:

1. Governments must refocus agricultural policies away from maximum-export, maximum-production, maximum-input, maximum-emission farm and food systems and toward increasing farmers’ margins and net incomes, increasing the number of farmers stewarding the land, and building climate resilience and long-term sustainability.

2. We need programs to reduce emissions from on-farm energy use in order to replace fossil fuels with low-emission electricity. Governments should finance on-farm solar arrays, fund research and development for battery-electric trucks and tractors, and incentivize energy-saving retrofits for farm buildings and homes.

3. Governments should help farmers reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer by incentivizing efficiency (4R techniques), introducing policies to reduce total tonnage (targets, independent soil testing) and mandating low-emission fertilizer production facilities (renewable energy and carbon capture).

4. Government programs should foster a reduction in input use overall. To help farmers sustain output while finding alternatives to emissions-causing inputs, governments should fund research, hire and train independent agrologists, and create research and demonstration farms.

5. Government policies should help build food-system resilience by diversifying production approaches — expanding the area farmed using low-input, holistic, regenerative, organic, and agroecological methods. Programs should encourage diversified rotations and cover crops, and support all farmers in moving all farms, big and small, toward climate-compatible, low-emission production systems.

6. Maximize benefits from livestock while minimizing emissions. Government programs should propagate best-possible grazing systems (rotational, holistic, and regenerative) and support farmers in reducing emissions by pursuing best-possible genetics, herd health, and feeding.

7. We need new agencies, such as a Canadian Farm Resilience Agency. A CFRA could lead on-farm mitigation and adaptation, oversee wetlands restoration and tree planting, manage extension agrologists and soil testing and operate demonstration farms where emission-minimizing production practices can be refined and showcased.

8. Governments must embrace food sovereignty, which includes local and regional food systems democratically shaped by farmers, consumers, and communities and focused on sustainability, justice, adequate incomes and the dependable provision of delicious, nutritious food for all.

Farmers have everything to lose if climate change rages uncontrolled. But solutions are at hand —already on display on many farms. Supportive government policies are critically needed to help spread positive practices and to enable the sector to make this crucial transition.

Darrin Qualman is director of climate crisis policy and action with the National Farmers Union.

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