Canadian farmers have made significant emissions reductions

But their contributions are little understood or recognized, a new report says

Corn grows on a farm

Canadian farmers receive too little credit for their progress in curbing carbon emissions that cause climate change, according to a new study.

The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI) recently released the report, which took full aim at another recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. CAPI says it fails to mention “the Canadian agriculture sector has made significant progress in making the soils in crop and animal production a net carbon sink, as well as reducing emission intensity of animal agriculture.”

They also said the report isn’t a balanced look at environmental issues and agriculture because it chose to focus solely on greenhouse gases “… to the exclusion of other kinds of environmental effects,” said the study, authored by Al Mussell of the Agri-Food Economic System and Ted Bilyea and Margaret Zafiriou of CAPI.

“This needs to be better understood so that the role of agriculture as a prospective solutions-provider rather than a source of emissions can inform the policy debate around achieving Canada’s climate change goals,” the study said.

GHG emissions in the Canadian agriculture sector peaked in 2005 while production has steadily increased, leading to a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to output, the study said.

“Canadian agricultural producers have improved their environmental performance, aided by a willingness to adopt new technologies and best management practices (BMPs) along with new regulations, policies and programs, and investment in research and development,” the report states.

Crop and livestock production accounts for about 8.4 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions while the IPCC report says that globally agriculture accounts for about 23 per cent of the world’s GHG emissions, CAPI said.

Canadian agriculture stands well behind the “energy from combustion industry” and the transportation sector as sources of GHGs.

As it tries to cope with climate change, “global population growth and increased demand for more and higher-quality food products, including meat, dairy and protein alternatives, imply that Canadian agriculture has an opportunity to produce and export more agriculture and agri-food products. The challenge is how to do so sustainably.”

The carbon tax and other climate change policies could place Canadian agriculture “at a cost disadvantage, especially relative to its major competitors, such as the United States” which has dropped out of an international campaign to reduce GHGs.

“The role of the agricultural sector in addressing climate change has been given little attention, if not ignored,” CAPI said. “This is unfortunate as agricultural land operates on very large stocks of stored carbon and has the potential to sequester carbon — not just mitigate emissions — unlike most other sectors.”

While producers have made progress, the ability of the sector to “readily adjust and provide far-reaching GHG storage, sequestration, and mitigation services as an opportunity for the sector, continues to be a critical issue.”

The study says “Canadian beef production has become much less emissions intensive as a result of new genetics, increased feed efficiencies and better pasture management. Canada is now one of the lowest emitters for animal protein, particularly beef, in the world.”

Meanwhile, crop producers have made significant increases in soil organic carbon levels and cut sharply carbon emissions from their fields. The 4R program of Fertilizer Canada has played an important role in that development by educating farmers on better fertilizer application.

An Ontario study found using 4R in corn production increased yields by nearly 20 per cent and reduced GHG emissions by 75 per cent. New farm equipment is also helping.

The development of direct seeding has been another step forward because it reduces the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, the study said. “On the Prairies where zero- and low-till practices have taken off, net GHG emissions have declined dramatically since 1996, contributing to substantial carbon storage and sequestration in Canadian soils.

The advent of regenerative agriculture has also helped build up carbon levels in the soil, the study said. “The resulting carbon-enriched soils are healthier, demonstrating better resilience to extreme weather, improving water permeability, increasing microbial diversity, raising yields, lowering input requirements and producing even more nutritious harvests — all of which improve the land and farmers’ bottom line.

“The quest for sustainable production still has a long way to go but it is also important to acknowledge the progress that has been made in Canadian agriculture,” the study said. “What remains is for the sector to better understand its role as a solutions-provider, along with the economics and policy to support it.”

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