Senate focuses on how climate change affects farmers

Canadian senators have been tasked with figuring out how climate change — and federal policies around combating it— are affecting the country’s agriculture industry.

The Senate agriculture committee has until June 30, 2018, to wrap up its investigation, during which time it will hear from farm groups, researchers, officials and others. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Cereals Canada and Pulse Canada were among the first witnesses.

Ottawa has been grappling with the agriculture and climate change question for decades.

The same Senate committee called on the federal government in a 2003 report to substantially increase federal funding to projects aimed at mitigating climate change’s effect on agriculture.

That report also urged Ottawa to make research around water a “national priority.” At the time, climate change was seen as one of the biggest threats facing this country’s abundant supply of fresh water.

Now, fast forward 15 years. The federal government is adamant national action on climate change must be taken.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he will impose a national price on carbon by 2018.

Saskatchewan vehemently opposes the implementation of a federal carbon tax, in part because the government thinks it will hurt the province’s agriculture sector, a view backed by many in the farming community.

They insist the policy will make them less competitive, particularly compared to their American and Australian counterparts, who are not subject to carbon pricing.

Those concerns have amplified following the White House’s recent decision to roll back several key climate change commitments put in place by the previous Barack Obama administration.

Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay has repeatedly insisted any agriculture exemptions would be up to the provinces, where exceptions differ widely.

Farmers argue they are already doing their utmost to combat climate change — efforts they say are widely misunderstood by Canadians and some policymakers.

They have repeatedly highlighted the adoption of modern farming practices such as precision agriculture and no-till as ways the sector has tried to reduce its emissions.

“In 2000, for the first time in Canada’s history, agricultural soil sequestered more carbon than was emitted through agricultural cropping practices,” Cereals Canada’s Cam Dahl told senators March 30.

“Farmers have, and will continue to, contribute to Canada’s climate change objectives. Canada’s cropping sector is part of the climate change solution and not a source of problems.”

Those efforts are not limited to crop-based agriculture. For example, Canadian beef has one of the lowest greenhouse gas footprints per unit of production in the world — about 12 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of live weight, which is less than half the world average.

Some farmers have argued the sector is “under attack” from federal bureaucrats and politicians who don’t understand the effect a price on carbon could have on input prices and global commodity markets.

Still, the sector appears to have no qualms when it comes to demands for federal research into climate change mitigation.

“In order to support a strong agriculture sector in Canada that remains resilient to climate change, governments will need to provide both the tools necessary and incentive-based funding to support the mainstreaming of adaptation planning,” says a CFA policy brief.

“This is critical not just for the livelihoods of farmers but also to support food security and to ensure a global food supply at reasonable prices in the case of catastrophic crop failures in other growing regions of global staples.”

Climate change and environmental sustainability is one of six key areas identified in the coming agriculture policy framework. That framework, which is now under negotiation, is expected to include program funding aimed at tackling challenges such as changing soil conditions, extreme weather, pests and declining water availability.

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