Recognize ag for grain-stored carbon

Agriculture is in a very unique position in this new low carbon era.

Each year, Canadian farms are net collectors of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (CO2e) by collecting carbon in soil and grain. Until now, the focus has been mainly on agricultural emissions, but there is a growing movement among farmers to look at the entire emission and capture balance to show the benefit of the agriculture industry.

In addition to carbon sequestration in the soil, a large amount of carbon is also stored in grain in the form of starch, oils and other carbon based organic compounds as a result of solar energy.

In 2016, farmers on the Prairies captured a net carbon equivalent of 17 tonnes of CO2e in grain, after accounting for ag emissions as reported in the National Greenhouse Gas tables. Prairie farmers collected 145 percent of their share of emissions. This storage has a considerable value at the current carbon tax rate.

Offsetting ag emissions with the CO2e stored in grain is a new concept, but it reveals an ag carbon cycle that completely offsets emissions within a year. The surplus is more than sufficient to cover additional indirect emissions in the industry, such as ag transportation and ag stationary combustion.

After grain leaves the farmgate, much of it is exported from Canada. When grain is consumed by end users, they can account for their emissions. This concept is already accepted when filling up with gas at the pump, accounting for emissions based on consumption.

When farmers are end users of grain fed to livestock, they already account for their emissions through the enteric fermentation and manure management emissions sections in the National GHG tables.

Recently, farmers have come under scrutiny for their nitrous oxide emissions from soil. The National GHG tables define these emissions as ag soils direct and ag soils indirect. N2O emissions are estimated based on fertilizer sales, not atmospheric measurements. Farmers are concerned that using good practices such as 4R and nitrogen stabilizers will not be reported as a reduction of emissions.

N2O emissions estimates are multiplied by a global warming potentials factor of 298 to convert to CO2e in Canada for reporting purposes because N2O is more of a greenhouse gas than CO2. This means that the actual nitrogen loss in the soil is very small, estimated to be about one percent of applied fertilizer in Canada.

At the moment, farmers are not asking to be paid for their net collection of carbon; rather they are asking not to be called polluters. Considering how unique the industry is, farmers are asking for some understanding of why the hidden costs of carbon tax and other mandated costs will have a large impact on farms who sell products into a world market.

Farmers are competing with countries who are addressing environmental stewardship without a carbon tax, which means farmers cannot pass on these increased costs at the international level.

Farmers are continuing to stand up for their industry. The risks they take and the costs that get passed to them must come out of their net margin. Farmers’ greatest resources are air, land and water. It’s just good business to treat them in a sustainable manner by continuing to collect even more CO2e than is released.

Fraser McPhee is a farmer in Dauphin, Man. and a P.Eng in biosystems engineering.

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