Next week, the National Farmers Union will examine government policies that can support farmers in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously increasing margins and net incomes.
The greatest threat to Canadian agriculture is climate change. Unless all nations slash greenhouse gas emissions, Canadian farmers will face large temperature increases, intensifying droughts and floods, the loss of export markets as foreign economies falter and disruptive domestic government responses.
Here are eight things farmers need to know about climate change and emissions reduction:
1. Temperatures in the Canadian Prairies are on track to increase six degrees this century. Such increases will be devastating. For example, this amount of overall warming could increase the number of very hot days (above 30 C) in farming areas near Saskatoon, Brooks Alta., or Brandon from about 15 C now to about 50 by the end of the century, according to the Climate Atlas of Canada. Such conditions will wither crops and bake soils. These impacts can be averted, however, if Canada and other nations reduce emissions.
2. Canada is committed to cutting overall emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and to making our country carbon neutral by 2050.
3. Despite such commitments, Canadian agricultural emissions are rising: up 22 percent since 1990. Agriculture produces about 11 percent of Canadian emissions.
4. Farm inputs are the problem. For thousands of years, humans practised agriculture but did not affect the atmosphere or climate. Over the past century, however, as farmers purchased more and more energy-intensive inputs, emissions have soared.
5. Nitrogen fertilizer is a huge problem. It is unique among human materials and processes in that it is a major source of all three main greenhouse gases: nitrous oxide (when used), carbon dioxide (in production), and methane (from its feedstock, natural gas). Canadian farmers have doubled nitrogen fertilizer tonnage since 1993.
6. Cattle emit methane, a greenhouse gas 28 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Atmospheric methane concentrations have doubled in the past 100 years. Sources include fossil-fuel production, landfills, and cattle and other grazing livestock. But cattle also bring many environmental benefits as critical parts of soil-building grassland ecosystems and biodiverse mixed-farming operations.
7. Healthy, carbon-rich soils are key. They hold more water, host more biodiversity and provide greater natural fertility. For climate resilience, we must restore and protect soils.
8. Climate solutions can be income solutions. The gap between farmers’ gross revenue and net income keeps getting wider. This gap reflects farmers’ expenses — money for fertilizer, fuel and other inputs. Lower-input approaches can reduce emissions and increase margins. Between 1935 and 1985, Canadian farmers held onto 33 cents out of every dollar they earned, but in recent decades it has been only five cents. When farmers become overdependent on purchased inputs, emissions go up and margins go down.
Climate impacts, the need to slash emissions, and the need to increase resilience and sustainability will change our farms. The good news is that the changes we may be forced to make can pave the way for changes we want to make.
We have an opening, an historic opportunity, to reimagine and restructure Canadian agriculture, to create a future with lower emissions, more farmers, higher margins, stable livelihoods and thriving communities.
The ideas outlined above are detailed in the NFU’s 100-page report, Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis: A Transformative Strategy for Canadian Farms and Food Systems, available at www.nfu.ca. The NFU is a founding member of Farmers for Climate Solutions at www.farmersforclimatesolutions.ca.
Darrin Qualman is director of climate crisis policy and action with the National Farmers Union.