Budget promises climate action in agriculture but other measures may undermine it

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Field of grain. Image credit: Jérôme Bussière/Unsplash

The dust has begun to settle since the federal budget was delivered on April 19. In the flurry of news items following the budget's release there is often little time to actually stop, think, and analyze what it might all mean. Context is just as important as the budget itself.

This budget has included spending that will impact agriculture, farm families, and, as a consequence, society as a whole.

No one can deny the importance of the line item on universal child care. Wow -- has that been a long time in coming. I remember joining women's marches campaigning for universal child care when I was 14 and first became aware of the issue. I don't want to tell you how many decades have passed since then! So -- finally!

Of course, rural farm women will most definitely benefit from this as well, since many work off-farm to try and supplement family incomes. Often child care in small communities is almost impossible to find and all child care is basically unaffordable when off-farm income is so crucial to supporting farm operations. Ten-dollar-a-day, accessible child care is lauded by rural women, as noted in the National Farmers Union's media release.

Agriculture and greenhouse gases have also been high on the agenda of several organizations recently. Founded more than a year ago, Farmers for Climate Solutions is a coalition of 16 farm, environmental, and social justice organizations. The advocacy group made a series of recommendations in a 2021 budget brief to the federal government calling for "cost-effective programs that directly support farmers to reduce greenhouse gases and build resilience."

The federal budget incorporates several of the measures recommended by the Farmers for Climate Solutions coalition. Among these are $200 million in new funding over two years to support farmers to reduce emissions by improving nitrogen management, increasing adoption of cover cropping, and normalizing rotational grazing. As well the federal government will allocate $60 million over the same period to protect trees and wetlands on farms, and another $10 million to power farms with clean energy.

The organizations involved were quick to acknowledge the importance of these budget commitments. Given the urgent need for investment in climate-change policies that reduce greenhouse gases these are important commitments that will encourage positive action in the agricultural sector.

A column published a little over a year ago details how the climate crisis is being fuelled by the same practices and pressures that are also eroding the number of family farms in Canada. That column provides detail on a groundbreaking report outlining how working to solve one crisis can also help to solve the other.

So the 2021 budget does provide some long-awaited hope that politicians and policy-makers are now beginning to understand the importance of tackling the climate crisis through key agriculture measures.

Meanwhile, my cynical side tells me not to get too excited. One step at a time.

After all, while some measures in the budget are positive, we have all seen this game of giving with one hand and taking with the other. The federal government is currently undertaking two very important regulatory reviews. One is Health Canada's review of regulations related to new genetically modified plants or "novel foods," detailed in this column.

Another is the federal government's current review of the Canada Grain Act and the Canadian Grain Commission. While the budget appears to recognize the importance of agriculture in mitigating climate change, the review of the regulations governing the role of the Canadian Grain Commission is troubling. Whenever the federal government uses words like "innovation," "evolution," "competitiveness," and "modernize" to describe a review of regulations, it makes me anxious. A review for whom? I wonder…

The Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), founded in 1912, regulates grain handling in Canada and establishes and maintains standards of quality for Canadian grain. The commission licenses handlers, maintains the quality of grains exported, and works to ensure that pricing practices and compensation for farmers are consistent and respected.

The National Farmers Union (NFU), an organization which is very adept at analyzing and anticipating ramifications of change, and which has a strong policy history favouring family farmers, has prepared a brief with recommendations calling for several measures to strengthen the role of the commission, as opposed to eroding it. 

The NFU also calls on the federal government to repeal certain clauses related to grain handling included in Bill C-4, the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) Implementation Act. The CUSMA Implementation Act amended certain existing laws to bring them into conformity with Canada's obligations and some related to grain handling were passed in haste, according to the NFU, and without committee debate as Canada headed into pandemic lockdown last March.

Some of these changes actually allow American grain into the Canadian grain handling system, threatening to erode the Canadian grains grading structure that has helped ensure better prices and access to international markets. In other words, the changes passed under Bill C-4 would allow U.S.-grown grain to be exported as if it were Canadian. That just feels wrong, important detail aside.

The budget, Bill C-4, and climate change all come together in the NFU brief.

How changes to the Canada Grain Act and the Canadian Grain Commission might impact family farmers and climate change targets are well detailed in the NFU submission to the Canada Grain Act review.

Here is an excerpt:

"The CGC's ability to establish and maintain high quality standards for Canada's grain will be critical to Canadian farmers' ability to reduce emissions from agricultural production. High quality standards and the higher prices that go hand in hand, will allow Canadian farmers to profitably use lower-emission production practices. This will allow Canada to retain international market share under increasingly strict GHG mitigation measures. In contrast, without quality standards to differentiate Canadian grain, our farmers will tread a vicious circle, using even more GHG-emitting fertilizer to increase yields and compensate for ever-lower prices and worsening climate conditions."

While public input into the federal review ended on April 30, I am sure this is not the last we will hear of possible changes to the Canadian Grain Act.

So, while the 2021 budget appears to favour agricultural climate change measures on the one hand, will federal regulatory reviews of the Canadian grain handling system end up reducing climate change measures on the other?

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 credit: Jérôme Bussière/Unsplash

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