Tackling farm and climate crises

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Image: Joseph Novak/Flickr

Increasingly, as organizations contemplate climate change, discussions of an impending food crisis are not far behind. Given the ravages of climate change -- whether that be unusual flooding, extreme heat and fire storms, or the devastation that can come from drought, tornadoes and hurricanes -- the impact of climate change on food production is massive.

Climate change discussions have often concentrated on damage to lives and infrastructure, such as homes and urban buildings. But the impact on food production is also very real.

The National Farmers Union (NFU), which is celebrating 50 years since its founding in 1969, has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to policy issues related to agriculture and food.

Its latest report, released in December, is no exception. Titled "Tackling the Farm Crisis and the Climate Crisis: A Transformative Strategy for Canadian Farms and Food Systems," the report focuses on how to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture while also improving food security and sovereignty.

The report argues that the factors driving the climate crisis are also the factors driving the farming crisis, and that while climate change presents a major challenge to agriculture it also provides an important opportunity to renew family farming in Canada.

The report opens with a few intentionally provocative and urgent, but factual, paragraphs.

"6.4 degrees Celsius. That’s the amount of warming that may ravage many areas of Canada this century. Unless we do something… The climate crisis is real, unfolding rapidly, causing destruction, and accelerating. If we do not change course its effects will be devastating. Unless Canada and all other nations act rapidly to reduce emissions— to restructure our energy, manufacturing, transportation, communication, and food systems—we will drive temperatures upward so far, and destabilize the climate so much, that our societies and ecosystems will be massively damaged. Unless we act now to slash emissions, we will trigger or intensify droughts and famines, mass migrations, sea level rise that will submerge some island nations, economic decline or collapse, the loss of much of the planet’s rainforests and coral reefs, desertification, feedbacks that further accelerate warming, and the most rapid extinction event in 65 million years."

From there, the report dives deep into the current state of Canadian agriculture, noting that since 2000 the national farm debt has more than doubled to a record breaking $106 billion. Corporations that sell fertilizers, seed, pesticides and herbicides, farm equipment, fuel, technology, and companies that provide services and credit, are taking 95 per cent of farm revenue, leaving farmers with only five per cent of revenue. In other words, these costs of production, most of which are fossil-fuel based, are so high that 95 per cent of the revenue produced by a farmer in any given year is required to pay for these farm inputs. Consequently, even during relatively good times (noted as since 2007), the majority of farm income comes from off-farm work, taxpayer supported programs and sources other than farm production.

Add increasing speculation on farm land, and it is no wonder that farm numbers continue to dwindle -- as they have for more than 60 years. But as the report notes, we are now in the final stages of farm/land concentration. Canada has lost two-thirds of its young farmers (those under the age of 35) since 1991.

The report concludes that if there is not a massive shift in agricultural policy, this country may be left with fewer than 100,000 farmers. (in 1961 there were more than 600,000 farmers in Canada).

Grim enough -- now add the climate crisis.

Interestingly, this report is optimistic about both the farm crisis, the climate crisis and agriculture more generally if the required policy changes are undertaken. Such policies would need to recognize that the model of "high-input, high-output" farming (i.e. the agri-business model and the use of fertilizers, pesticides, etc., to generate high volumes, often at the expense of the environment) this country has fostered is the cause of both the farm crisis and the climate crisis-inducing greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture, the reports notes, produces 12 per cent of Canada's GHG emissions.

"As we have doubled and redoubled input use, we have doubled and redoubled the GHG emissions from agriculture," writes report author Darrin Qualman, former research director of the NFU. "Two things happen when farmers become overdependent on petro-industrial inputs: emissions go up, and incomes go down."

An air of optimism deepens throughout the report as policy solutions are advanced. It doesn't have to be this way -- there are alternatives

Key conclusions of the report are:

  • The climate crisis is a threat to Canadian farms, but also an opportunity to re-orient our farms to become more integrated, life-sustaining and community-sustaining.
  • The farm crisis and the climate crisis share many of the same causes, and many of the same solutions.
  • The climate crisis will increasingly impact the ability of Canadian farms to produce food. If we fail to plan, we plan to fail.
  • Priority must be placed on incentivizing low-input, low-emission agricultural approaches.

And this is where the report really begins to get interesting.

Not only does it starkly identify the problems and issues, it presents solutions and dozens of specific actions that, taken together, could reduce emissions from agriculture by 30 per cent by 2030, and as much as 50 per cent by 2050.

Here are some of the report's major recommendations:

  • Reimagining Canadian agriculture: rejecting current policies focused on maximizing exports and production, maximizing inputs, and minimizing the number of farmers; and substituting a new approach focused on sustainability, reducing inputs and attendant emissions, raising farm incomes, and increasing the number of farms and farmers.
  • Diversifying our production approaches by supporting alternatives such as organic, holistic, and agroecological production systems.
  • Increasing the efficiency of fertilizer production and use, maximizing natural sources of fertility, reducing fertilizer consumption, and providing alternatives to purchased inputs.
  • Shifting, as much as possible, from fossil fuels to electricity, because electricity can be a low-emission power source.
  • Maximizing on-farm renewable-energy production as well as locally and co-operatively owned large-scale solar and wind power projects.
  • Minimizing transport distances and rejecting the senseless to-ing and fro-ing of food, export-fixated agricultural policies, the destruction of local food systems, and the maximization of food miles.
  • Shifting some land into set-aside programs, ecological reserves and alternative land use systems (ALUS); and reversing the destruction of forests, tree bluffs, shelterbelts and wetlands.
  • Rethinking cattle production systems in order to maximize the benefits (soil carbon building, healthy grassland ecosystems, sustainable mixed farms) while taking steps to deal with methane emissions.
  • Opening a conversation with farmers to consider how a carbon tax might be applied to agricultural inputs in a way that supports farm incomes; incentivizes a move toward low-input, low-emission approaches; financially rewards those who invest in emission-reduction technologies and retrofits; and helps speed a transition to sustainable production systems.
  • Creating a Canadian Farm Resilience Administration (CFRA) -- a super PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) -- to help farmers protect soils, land, water and our food-production capacities and assist in the mobilization needed to meet our emission-reduction targets.

Each of these recommendations is explained in detail in the report. By far the most necessary and transformative recommendation is the first included in the list above -- the one related to "reimagining Canadian agriculture" and re-modelling our agricultural system. This recommendation gets to the crux of why the agri-business model of farming is part of the problem in relation to climate change and also in relation to rural communities, family farms and incomes, food quality and most importantly, food security and sovereignty.

This report is an excellent read -- groundbreaking in its importance, detailed content and deep analysis.

For more on the NFU report and the launch this month of a national alliance called Farmers for Climate Solutions, listen to this rabble podcast and interview with Stewart Wells, former president and current executive member of the National Farmers Union.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image: Joseph Novak/Flickr

Editor's note, February 25, 2020: A previous version of this article misnamed the group "Farmers for Climate Solutions" as "Farmers for Climate Change." The name has been corrected.

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