Rethinking the Green Revolution

Canada needs to ‘swing for the fences’ and transform its agriculture, says a new discussion paper

The climate change and farm income crisis have many of the same causes and solutions, according to a major new discussion paper.

Cutting back on petroleum-based inputs, including nitrogen fertilizer, will reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and increase net farm incomes by lowering input costs. The result: more farmers and revitalized rural communities, says the National Farmers Union in a document entitled Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis: A Transformative Strategy for Canadian Farmers and Food Systems that was presented to its recent 50th anniversary convention in Winnipeg.

Darrin Qualman.
photo: Allan Dawson

“The emissions coming out of our farm and food systems are simply the downstream outputs of the petro-industrial inputs we push in,” says the paper written by farmer, researcher and author Darrin Qualman, in co-operation with the NFU.

“As we have doubled and redoubled input use, we have doubled and redoubled the GHG emissions from agriculture. The seemingly inescapable conclusion is this: any low-emission food-production system will be a low-input food-production system. And as we change policies and approaches to reduce and optimize input use, farm incomes can rise.”

The NFU says its proposal can help cut agricultural GHG emissions by 30 and 50 per cent by 2030 and 2050, respectively.

Why it matters: Canada is committed to lowering its GHG emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and to be net carbon neutral by 2050. The NFU says farmers can help save the planet and themselves, but only if they earn enough money to make the required changes.

The last 30 years Canadian farmers grossed billions of dollars in revenues but 95 per cent of the money went to input, machinery and credit suppliers, leaving farmers just five per cent, the paper says.

Farm debt, Canada, 1971–2018.
photo: Supplied

During the same period the number of Canadian farms fell by a third to 193,000.

The discussion paper suggests not only capping nitrogen use, but putting a small tax ($1 an acre) on it. The money raised would be used to help farmers use nitrogen more efficiently.

Farmers should pay the carbon tax, but also get 100 per cent of carbon tax revenue collected from those supplying farmers with goods and services because ultimately they pass the tax on to farmers.

“Farmers cannot shoulder new taxes that international competitors may not face,” the paper says. “Refunding all taxes collected solves the export-competition problem.”

Loss of young farmers: Number of farm operators under 35, Canada, 1991–2016, census years.
photo: Supplied

There should be more organic farmers in Canada, but the best bang for the buck is a hybrid of organic and no till, according to the paper.

Livestock production should be cut, but continue because of the benefits to grasslands and their role in carbon sequestering.

However, the paper also says while sequestering carbon helps reduce GHG emissions, the soil can only store a finite amount. Sequestering carbon alone isn’t enough.

Precision agriculture could help, but according to the paper, because it’s tied to “dominant agribusiness… should not be part of a climate change solution for farmers.”

The paper suggests creating a new agency called the Canadian Farm Resilience Administration (CFRA), modelled after the defunct Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), created to assist farmers during the 1930s drought.

Economics

Key to NFU’s proposal is ensuring farmers have enough net income to make the changes required to reduce GHG emissions and be profitable.

“Low-input agriculture can free farmers from the profit-extracting embrace of corporate input suppliers, reduce costs, increase net farm incomes, and reduce emissions,” the paper says. “At the heart of this report is an idea — a radical idea: though a threat, the climate crisis is also an opportunity. It forces change upon us and this creates a chance — probably our last — to save the family farm.”

Net farm income: Gross farm revenue and realized net income, net of government subsidies, Canada, 1926–2018.
photo: Supplied

The NFU knows its proposal is controversial, but says given the existential threat to the environment and farmers, tackling climate and low farm income will take bold action and a national commitment similar to that mustered to win the Second World War.

“It will not be enough to merely tinker,” the paper says. “Our farm and food systems must be reimagined and restructured. We must proceed with swing-for-the-fence levels of ambition and governments must lead the way.”

There’s a direct correlation between fertilizer use and crop yields. So how do farmers make money and feed a growing world without increasing inputs? It’s complicated, Qualman said in an interview Nov. 27 during the NFU meeting.

“Using best practices such as the 4R nutrient practices you can probably cut back about 15 to 20 per cent of the fertilizer out without affecting yield very much,” he said, alluding to research by the University of Manitoba’s Mario Tenuta. “Beyond that you need to look at things like food waste and converting food into fuels and various things — including junk food.”

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Cutting nitrogen use by 15 per cent would reduce GHG emissions from agriculture four per cent, according to the paper.

Sources

Canadian agriculture accounts for 12 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions and 70 per cent comes from three sources:

  • Livestock contributes 30 per cent.
  • Agricultural soils (mostly related to nitrogen), 29 per cent — 18 per cent from nitrogen emissions; 11 per cent making nitrogen.
  • Burning fossil fuels in machinery and to heat buildings makes up 11 per cent.

Lower-horsepower equipment engines could be switched to electric, the paper says, while larger ones could be hydrogen powered.

As for livestock, the paper says while they play a vital role in nutrient cycling and grassland preservation, which is important in preserving wildlife diversity and carbon sequestration, there are too many domesticated animals in the world. Canadian beef production should be cut 10 to 15 per cent and incentives used to keep production from rising as prices increase due to lower supply, the paper says.

The government also needs to help livestock producers to make cattle production more efficient.

“Making these changes could cut Canada’s livestock emissions by 20 to 30 per cent,” the paper says.

For 9,900 years agriculture was solar powered with net zero emissions. That changed about 100 years ago with the rise of fossil fuels.

“We have driven our food system down a civilizational cul-de-sac,” the paper says. “We cannot go further. We must turn around. We have made a civilizational error. We need a new direction and a structural transformation.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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