Sustainability is an evolving concept that can mean different things depending on the individual and sector. Sustainability coincides with public trust granted to operate concerning environmental, societal (labour rights), food quality and safety. To most farmers, it means constant improvement in production practices, technology, efficiency and leaving the land in better condition than they found it.
Grain, oilseed and pulse producers have adopted many techniques that reduce their environmental and ecological impact. These include:
- Minimum till farming – also known as low, no till or conservation tillage farming, this practice means that farmers no longer have to till the soil to kill weeds, conserving moisture and reducing erosion of soils. According to Statistics Canada, more than half of our farmland is cultivated using no till practices.
- As fewer passes are made over the field, fuel use in Canada is reduced by over 170 million litres each year.
- Precision Agriculture employs modern farming equipment (including drones) to allow for targeted application of crop inputs when and where they are needed most.
- Adherence to the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program for fertilizer application.
- Plant biotechnology allows for more efficient pesticide use and improved soil management practices.
- Crop Rotations are an integral part of integrated pest management, breaking disease, weed and other pest cycles. These include winter crops such as fall rye and winter wheat as well as leguminous forages for building soil health.
- Cover crops to inhibit weed growth and fix atmospheric nitrogen.
- Development and revisiting of provincial Environmental Farm Plans – to ensure goals and continuous improvement are maintained.
The Canadian cropping sector represents one of the most effective solar cells in the world. The process of continuous cropping under conservation tillage traps carbon in the soil in a process of sequestration, removing it from the atmosphere and reducing greenhouse gasses (GHGs).
The announcement in fall 2016 of a Pan-Canadian Price on Carbon Pollution put the onus on provinces to place a $50/tonne price on carbon by 2022. Several provinces have already established either carbon taxes or cap and trade programs. Effective February 2017, 80% of Canadians live under a carbon pricing regulation of some sort.
Canadian farmers are poised to shoulder the impacts of a carbon price disproportionally from other sectors through higher input costs. Farmers are international price-takers and cannot pass on increased costs to their buyers. They effectively pay retail prices for inputs, and sell their product at wholesale while paying the freight both ways which is subject to the carbon price.
Concerns and issues for the grains sector include but are not limited to:
- competitiveness impacts due to an export dependent trade exposed sector;
- carbon sequestration. Producers must be recognized for their previous practice changes and awarded full value for their eco-system services and stewardship;
- on-farm fuel use including propane and natural gas for conventional grain drying as perishable biological organisms need to be conditioned as to not spoil;
- higher input and transportation costs including upstream or scope 2 (further up or down the supply chain);
- equity across the country and jurisdictional authority for provincial schemes (carbon tax versus cap and trade) as well as different agricultural practices; and
- how climate change will be addressed in the next agricultural policy framework.
Added costs to shipping companies, suppliers, crop input companies, and retailers will be passed on to farmers, who in turn must absorb those costs. Any carbon pricing scheme must mitigate these risks and provide measures to ensure that programs that affect farmers are revenue neutral or re-invest in technological advancements that reduce climatic impact. Some provinces already have impact mitigation measures in place for agriculture producers, such as the fuel exemption in British Columbia and innovation investments in Alberta. We recommend that provinces look at these examples when they develop their own carbon pricing programs.
It is imperative that farmers be recognized for their practices, not landlords, and farmers obtain full value for their carbon offsets.