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How Canadian farmers can go from climate change polluters to a key part of the solution

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In Agriculture
Feb 14th, 2020
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Creemore farmers tackle climate change -CBC photo

Gillian Flies and Brent Preston of Creemore are members of Farmers for Climate Solutions. They call for new policies and a larger voice for farmers in addressing climate change. -CBC photo

By Nick Boisvert CBC News February 11, 2020

After trudging through the thick layer of snow blanketing his farmland, Brent Preston shovels some aside and begins digging into the soil.

Under the snow, the ground is unexpectedly green, with a medley of peas, sunflowers, clover and oats alive and thriving in the dead of winter.

“One thing we like to say is: there’s never any bare soil in nature,” Preston said, dusting the snow off a chunk of earth in his hands.

“The more diversity you have, the healthier the soil is going to be.”

While the plants are alive, Preston has no intention of ever harvesting them. When the growing season arrives, he will plow them back into the soil, making way for the salad greens, spinach and cucumbers he produces at his organic farm in Creemore.

It’s a practice known as cover cropping, an ancient but now uncommon technique in which crops are planted during the off season to keep soil healthy and active.

Critically, cover crops also allow the land to extract carbon from the atmosphere. That ability could be a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, which farmers like Preston call a pressing existential threat to Canada’s agricultural industry and the health of the planet.

“We’ve realized that doing it just on our little farm isn’t going to have enough of an impact,” Preston said. “There are thousands of other farms like ours across the country.”

Preston is now part of a group called Farmers for Climate Solutions, which intends to promote environmental practices while also giving farmers a stronger voice in Canada’s climate change policies.

Those changes will help Canada reduce emissions while also making farms more resilient to the effects of climate change such as droughts and unpredictable growing seasons, the group says.

The Canada-wide coalition, which includes organizations such as the National Farmers Union and Canadian Organic Growers, launched on Tuesday to mark national Agriculture Day.

Agriculture has ‘huge opportunity’ to capture carbon

As of 2017, Canada’s agriculture industry represents 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. The true contribution is somewhat higher, since that figure only accounts for the production of crops and livestock, and not the use of fossil fuels or fertilizers on farmland.

“When it comes to climate change, people feel like farmers are part of the problem,” said Preston’s partner Gillian Flies.

But unlike other major contributors, such as the oil and gas industry, farming theoretically has the potential to become carbon neutral or even carbon negative, meaning it could one day extract more harmful emissions from the atmosphere than it generates.

“Agriculture is a huge contributor to carbon emissions but it also offers a huge opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and to capture carbon,” said Anja Geitmann, a professor at McGill University’s plant science program.

Healthy farmland, Geitmann explained, can sequester carbon into the soil through the process of photosynthesis, helping reduce the amount of harmful greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The federal agency Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada notes that earth’s existing farmland could absorb all of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions for the next 100 years at current rates if properly used.

But according to Farmers for Climate Solutions, the existing system of industrial agriculture makes it impossible to realize the carbon fighting potential of Canada’s 160 million acres of farmland.

The group points to soil tilling, chemical products, fossil fuel usage and low biodiversity on farms as key areas that must be improved upon.

Failing to do so, they argue, will prevent the nation’s farmland from reducing carbon and make farms more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“It’s really impacting our ability to grow food,” said Flies, pointing to the longer droughts and unpredictable weather making it harder for Canadian farmers to operate.

Costs, established practices are major hurdles

While Geitmann hailed the coalition’s “ambitious” plan to tackle climate change, she noted that several major obstacles could make it hard to achieve its goals.

Chiefly, she pointed to potentially higher costs and the challenges of implementing new practices that have been in place for decades.

Moving away from soil tilling, for example, may require a more laborious system of removing weeds from soil that could be challenging to some farmers.

Bringing those changes to life will likely require new federal incentives to help farmers, Geitmann said.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture also called the plan to become carbon neutral “prohibitively costly” without policy changes such as exempting farmers from the federal carbon tax.

Farmers for Climate Solutions also acknowledge that the powerful chemical and fertilizer industry will likely resist widespread change that points farmers away from its products.

Much of the information supplied to farmers comes from that industry, Flies said, so her group is also looking for new strategies to educate farmers about environmental practices.

Paul Slomp, who raises beef cattle in Saint-André-Avellin, Que., said his farm has already moved away from chemicals and artificial feeds. His 200 cows now graze exclusively on grass, which he manages with the goal of maximizing the land’s ability to capture carbon.

He questioned the worries around higher costs, and said he’s now making more money than he did before the changes.

“Because we’re reducing the amount of input that we need to purchase, we’re actually able to generate a much better profit margin,” said Slomp, who is not a member of Farmers for Climate Solutions.

“The cows are meant to do this; they thrive in a system like ours, and it can be quite profitable.”

These Canadian farmers have a plan for tackling climate change

By Alastair Sharp National Observer February 11th 2020

Agriculture is a major contributor to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, farmers are hit by some of the worst effects of climate change. But a coalition of farming groups says they can also be a part of the solution.

Farmers for Climate Solutions is calling for agricultural policy to be redesigned with a climate change lens placed over the entire framework. That means boosting the efforts of farmers to reduce their emissions, enhance soil health and increase resilience to extreme weather.

Measures to rein in emissions from agriculture, which would include reducing reliance on costly synthetic fertilizers and herbicides, should also improve farmer’s livelihoods, said the coalition, whose members includes the National Farmers Union, Canadian Organic Growers, FarmFolk CityFolk, Rural Routes to Climate Solutions and the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario.

“Farmers are on the front lines of climate change. They’re dealing with the impacts already and being required to find solutions,” said Jane Rabinowicz, the executive director of SeedChange, another member of the coalition. “What we’re saying is the burden shouldn’t be on farmers alone.”

Rabinowicz and others in the coalition said government has an important role to play in spreading the word about successful farm innovations and helping to scale them up.

“It’s been several decades now that we really don’t have a significant public extension service,” said Karen Ross, project manager for agriculture at coalition member Équiterre. “It’s been replaced with private extension.”

“Extension service” refers to the application of new scientific methods to farming.

“So that means companies who are selling fertilizers, who are selling pesticides, who are selling seeds, are most of the people that farmers talk to,” she said.

Gillian Flies, the president of Canadian Organic Growers, represents the type of success story the coalition hopes can be emulated across the country.

She and her husband, Brent Preston, work full-time on their 100-acre, certified organic farm in Creemore, growing salad greens and cucumbers, and supplying some 150 restaurants and a handful of retail stores.

Agriculture accounts for 12 per cent of GHG emissions in Canada, according to a report released in December by the National Farmers Union. But the industry is also a promising place to target for fast and effective solutions.

They have implemented several regenerative practices, which have had a notable effect on their ability to produce in tougher weather conditions.

These include planting some 12,000 trees, installing 18 beehives and creating protected pollinator and wildlife areas. They also use cover cropping — planting non-yielding crops to suppress weeds, improve soil quality and manage erosion — and have shifted away from tilling, which releases carbon into the atmosphere and leads to less water retention.

The measures are producing tangible results.

“Last summer, we had really high temperatures and a long drought, and we were still able to germinate arugula and spinach while farmers in our area who were tilling couldn’t,” Flies said in a phone interview, noting that a research trial they were involved in showed that their soil was 6 degrees cooler than soil on a neighbouring farm.

“It’s intimidating until you know how to do it and you hear success stories from other farmers demonstrating their increased profitability, but it really is an opportunity for all farmers,” Flies said.

Soil degradation cost farmers $3.1 billion in lost yield in 2011, according to researchers at the University of Manitoba. It has removed between $40 billion and $60 billion from gross domestic product since the 1970s, they calculated.

Eyeing next farm five-year plan starting in 2023

The coalition is hoping to see their views reflected in the next five-year plan of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a $3-billion funding mechanism from federal, provincial and territorial governments. The next one will map out policy priorities for 2023 and onwards.

Ottawa on Monday shelled out $2 million from the fund to cover half the costs of grain drying, after heavy rains led to a wet harvest last year, meaning dryers had to burn more fuel for longer periods to prevent crops from rotting.

The increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather damages crops and soil, with unseasonal snow trapping unharvested crops underneath and late frosts killing blossoms on fruit trees.

Agriculture accounts for 12 per cent of GHG emissions in Canada, according to a report released in December by the National Farmers Union, one of the members of the coalition. But the industry is also a promising place to target for fast and effective climate solutions, they said.

The group estimates that the reimagining of farming they are calling for could cut those emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 and perhaps by 50 per cent by 2050.

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