Farmers a big part of the greenhouse gas solution

November 8, 2017

On October 27 the provincial government’s long-awaited climate and green plan was unveiled, and it indicates that farmers will be given some exemptions from the provincial carbon tax.


Some may say ask why there should be an exemption for agriculture and not for other industries, but let me explain by quoting JFK from 1960: “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.”


A lot has changed in agriculture since the 60s, not least of which is that we recognize the thousands of women involved in the industry now. What hasn’t changed, though, is the underlying structure of the agricultural economy. Grain and livestock prices given to farmers are set globally, based on world market demand, so Manitoba prices cannot be altered to pass on additional production costs and taxes to customers.


However, many of the industries we rely on for our inputs are not as captive to world prices as farmers, and we are going to see them pass on their carbon tax to us. This is already happening in provinces that have implemented a price on carbon.


For example, one trucking company implemented a one per cent carbon tax surcharge at the start of 2017 in Alberta, where there is already a price on carbon. It will increase to 1.5 per cent in 2018 as the Alberta carbon tax increases.


Another example: one railway currently charges a carbon tax surcharge of four cents per mile on all shipments from, to, or within British Columbia – and similar amounts in other provinces that already have a carbon price.


It’s clear that certain other industries can pass on carbon costs, but farmers can’t.


What has changed since 1960 is nearly everything about how we manage land and livestock. Today’s agriculture industry is attuned to the effects of greenhouse gases on climate changes. It has evolved in a dramatic way in order to control its emissions – and it will continue to do so despite some exemptions from the price on carbon.


For example, over half of Manitoba’s 11 million acres of crop land is grown in minimal or zero-tillage systems. This means little disturbance of the soil, a practice that sequesters large amounts of carbon dioxide. It is estimated that Manitoba farmers sequester up to 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year through these cropping systems.


In addition, these systems greatly reduce the number of field passes farmers must make with their farm equipment, with the result that less carbon-based fuel is burned.


Fertilizer, an important part of agriculture, is needed for most crop production. However, Manitoba farmers have adopted soybeans, a crop that requires no carbon-sourced nitrogen fertilizer.


Soybean production has increased dramatically – from 18,000 acres in 2000 to a current 2.3 million acres. In 2016 alone, this resulted in savings of 245,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – the equivalent of taking 52,000 cars off the road. This is all thanks to new varieties that have been bred for prairie climate conditions.


Here’s another fact. Livestock production has become more efficient. Animal breeding advances and increases in feed efficiency have reduced methane emissions from Canadian dairy and beef cattle by 15 per cent per litre of milk and kilogram of beef over the last 30 years. In addition, the forages (pasture plants) that cattle consume sequester significant amounts of carbon in their roots.


In the hog industry, Manitoba farms emit 35 per cent fewer greenhouse gases than they did 50 years ago. And now, farmers are moving toward manure storage under their barns, instead of ground-level lagoon storage. This will profoundly reduce methane gas production.


And it doesn’t stop there. There are recent innovations that will create even more emission reductions. For example, precision agriculture is a new frontier that uses field data to adjust the amount of fertilizer applied to individual field conditions – thus reducing the amount of fertilizer used.


More research is needed into methods of production that will further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration. This could include alternate fuels, new crop varieties, new ways of reducing animal-produced greenhouse gases, improved forage production, improved grazing management – and the list goes on.


I am hoping the new climate and green plan will facilitate research funding, and also include programming to speed up the adoption of new technologies while offsetting financial risk for farmers. Farmers can be a bigger part of the climate change solution than they already are, and in the long run can offset emissions from the rest of society.


Current economic modelling by the province indicates that a carbon tax reduction of more than $200 per tonne would be required to meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets – if the tax was the only tool used.


We don’t believe that this is the right path for Manitoba. Instead, we want to work with the government and other stakeholders to develop a plan that helps achieve our environmental goals, while at the same time growing the provincial economy through investments in agriculture.


Dan Mazier is president of Keystone Agricultural Producers. He produces grains and oilseeds near Justice, Manitoba.



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