Farmers fighting climate change

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Image: Stan Shebs/Wikimedia

Brent Preston is an organic vegetable farmer near the village of Creemore, Ontario. He is the president of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, which is one of the member organizations of Farmers for Climate Solutions, a new Canada-wide coalition that is pushing for changes in policy that will make the country's agricultural sector part of the solution to climate change. Scott Neigh interviews him about the relationship between agriculture and the climate crisis, and about the work of Farmers for Climate Solutions.

Even for non-farmers, it is not hard to imagine that a changing climate has huge implications for agriculture. Higher average temperatures will mean that growing seasons get longer, which sounds like a good thing, but most other changes related to a warming climate present serious problems. Most parts of the country with lots of farming are expected to have more days of extremely high temperatures per summer, which can be harmful to both crops and animals. As well, precipitation patterns in many farming areas are expected to change in ways that make rainfall less even, so that both more flooding and more droughts are likely. Overall, there will be greater variability and instability in weather patterns, which will make it harder for farmers to plan. And as we have already begun to see, there will be more extreme weather events of all sorts.

Brent Preston and his wife Gillian Flies have been farmers for 15 years. Over that time, they have seen hotter, drier summers, with rain that is less frequent but more intense when it happens. They have seen warmer winters with less snow cover, which puts their land at more risk of wind erosion and nutrient loss. They have seen changes in disease and pest patterns, and in fact a few years ago they stopped growing tomatoes because certain fungal diseases that used to come near the end of the growing season now come in the middle.

What may be less apparent to non-farmers is the extent to which greenhouse gas emissions by the agricultural sector are major contributors to climate change. The dominant approach to agriculture in industrialized countries, including Canada, uses a lot of what today's guest describes as "inputs." It is an approach that is highly mechanized, so one form of input is the fossil fuels to run the machinery. But the inputs also include things like nitrogen fertilizers and various pesticides and herbicides. Nitrogen fertilizers in particular are a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, both via the processes through which they are manufactured and also once they are applied.

Preston says that the members of the Ecological Farmers Association and of a wide range of progressive farmers' organizations from across the country have become increasingly concerned with climate change in the last few years. That's why a number of farmer-led and farmer-supporting organizations came together last year to form Farmers for Climate Solutions.

The new group's focus, along with public education and both educational and mobilizing work directly with farmers, is lobbying federal and provincial governments to develop a sector-wide climate strategy focused on promoting techniques that are low-input and that build the soil. Lowering inputs reduces emissions directly. Many changes in that direction are relatively easy to adopt. Crucially, inputs are a major expense, so reducing inputs will also save farmers money. And farming practices that focus on building soil health can actually lead to carbon dioxide being sequestered from the air into the soil.

Preston says they are seeing significant support for their agenda from small and large farmers, organic and conventional farmers, and farmers in all regions of the country. Some individual farmers and farmer organizations are doing their best to promote such changes, and the occasional government program to do so exists here and there, but Canada lags behind many other countries in terms of coordinated government action.

Farmers for Climate Solutions is demanding action related to education and to incentives. Governments once played a significant role in working with farmers and farmer organizations to spread information about farming techniques. In recent decades, however, that work has largely been done by the huge corporations that manufacture inputs -- a fact that may help explain the current dominance of high-input farming. Farmers for Climate Solutions is asking governments to get back to doing this work, with an emphasis on the kinds of farming practices that are good for the climate. In terms of subsidy programs, they are not asking for major new expenditures. There already are lots of incentive programs for farmers and they want those to be redirected to promote low-input farming.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Stan Shebs/Wikimedia

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