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Comment: The problem or the solution?

March saw a flurry of press releases and articles related to climate change, the environment and agriculture.

Notably, the Weston Family Foundation allocated $25 million to preserving grasslands over the next five years (see News Roundup). A pilot project for a carbon offset protocol that encourages grassland retention is also underway. This carbon offset protocol has several groups behind it, including the Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association. There have also been significant announcements for funding for species-at-risk programs, including some federal funding. And just as I was finishing this Comment, the federal government announced $185 million for the Agricultural Climate Solutions program, funding that the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association welcomed in a release.

Meanwhile, under the draft regulations for the federal carbon market, Canadian producers won’t receive credit for seeding or maintaining perennial forage or zero till, especially if those practices were in place before 2017. The government has tabled other issues, such as protocols for preserving grassland and feed management.

I wanted another perspective on the federal carbon market announcement so I chatted with Al Mussell, research lead and founder of Agri-Food Economic Systems in Guelph, Ont. When Mussell looks at the big social, economic and environmental issues in front of the government, he sees great potential to weave together strands of these issues through agriculture. Ag and food, he says, “can bring us together and really drive a lot of things that are issues that we’re going to have to deal with.”

Mussell is worried about regional disparity, especially with Alberta. He actually sees carbon credits as a potential new economic driver for the West that could fit into the existing model for economic development. “So why isn’t this a rallying point?” he asks.

The idea of climate change policy being ag-friendly may seem like a stretch to some readers. Here is how I sum up the thinking on this angle: Climate change is a real problem that we’ll all have to deal with, one way or another. Therefore, farmers and ranchers, who manage vast carbon-storing landscapes, should not be treated as major emitters. Instead they should be encouraged to sequester carbon and compensated fairly. Mussell notes that ag is one of the few industries with the potential to sequester meaningful amounts of carbon (the other major one being forestry).

Agriculture had already adopted some practices that reduced emissions before anyone was worried about carbon. For example, on the cropping side, direct seeding “ends up being pretty handy” for reducing emissions, Mussell notes, even though that wasn’t the original intention. Why not include that in the federal carbon market, he asks. It’s also worth noting that people in agriculture have been working on this for years, and have made some headway — Alberta already has a nitrous oxide protocol for agriculture, for example, along with protocols for fed cattle, conservation cropping, etc….

One challenge for the beef industry, Mussell says, is that “our understanding of ruminants, and methane in particular, is changing in real time.” The beef industry has long lived under the shadow of a problematic, since-retracted UN report blaming livestock for a disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately, our Canadian researchers, as well as prominent researchers in the U.S. and England, are showing that we can’t apply methane emission standards developed for the petroleum industry to ruminants. Mussell hopes that those researchers have enough influence with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to correct such misperceptions.

This also ties into foreign trade. Mussell points out that Canada is one of the few countries in the world with a material surplus of food, and so is a very reliable food exporter. Even if food prices doubled and there was food scarcity, Canada is highly unlikely to slap an embargo on ag exports, making us a good bet for countries that depend on food imports.

Among those food-importing nations are wealthy countries that look for not only quality food, but also a sustainable food system. To these countries, sustainable food is not about “catering to an esoteric consumer preference. They just want to look for suppliers that will be able to keep on going over time and won’t run down their agricultural system,” says Mussell.

In my opinion, Canadian beef, and Canadian ag in general, can hit all those points. My concerns with government policy are, of course, cost (especially to producers) and whether that policy is effective or has unintended consequences.

In the near-term, Mussell would like to see a plan from the federal government that engages agriculture as a solutions-provider for climate change. Along with that, he’d like to see a budget that addresses carbon-fixing costs with new money. He also notes that government will have to be more engaged than usual and develop a better understanding of carbon-fixing in ag and potential unintended consequences of certain practices, as it’s a very complicated system. Ongoing monitoring, adaptability and attention to detail are important, as Mussell and his colleague Charles Lalonde outlined in a recent briefing note (Agri-Environmental Beneficial Management Practices: Understanding the Policy Context).

Finally, Mussell wants to see a willingness to protect our ag sector from carbon border fees. Mussell acknowledges that all this “sounds like anathema” to the beef industry, and more generally to an open, free-traded-based economy. “But I don’t really see any choice,” he says.

Europe is talking about having carbon border fees in place by 2023, he notes. Right now, the EU is focusing on cement, steel and electricity, according to an article by Kate Abnett at Reuters. Implementing a carbon border tax on ag imports is wickedly complex. But it’s also possible the EU will adopt domestic laws to deal with it, notes Alan Beattie in an opinion piece in the Financial Times.

Closer to home, Mussell points out that during U.S. Secretary of Ag Tom Vilsack’s confirmation hearing, he confirmed that he saw carbon as a commodity, and would like to use the Commodity Credit Corp. to pay for on-farm climate mitigation. President Biden campaigned on climate change initiatives, says Mussell. “And all indications are that the U.S. is prepared to move in this direction. And we need to be prepared to meet them on that. It would be heavily, heavily to our advantage if we could find a way of co-ordinating with the U.S.”

About the author

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Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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