Paying farmers to plant cover crops and use less fertilizer could reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 10 million tonnes, according to a new report.

Agriculture is responsible for roughly eight per cent of Canada’s emissions, largely because of excessive fertilizer use and poor soil health. But according to the coalition of farmers and researchers behind the report, shifting to more sustainable practices is cost-prohibitive for many farmers.

A $300-million investment by the federal government could change that, they say, reducing emissions and helping the country catch up to similar initiatives in the EU and the U.S.

“We need some very clear policy direction from Ottawa that says climate-smart agriculture is important for us to meet our national (emissions) targets,” said Cedric MacLeod, a rancher, principal at MacLeod Agronomics and co-author to the report. “(The report) lays the very clear, very affordable road map to get there. That’s going to build resilience in our Canadian agricultural systems and, ultimately, increase the profitability of Canadian agriculture.”

Improving soil health lies at the heart of the team’s recommendations.

Almost a third of the proposed funding would go to helping farmers and agronomists work in concert to reduce excessive nitrogen use.

When applied to fields in excess, nitrogen — common in artificial fertilizers — is broken down by microbes into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. The chemical can also deprive soils of nutrients and hurt the soil’s natural microbial communities, which are essential to long-term soil health.

The report also calls on the federal government to support farmers as they incorporate cover cropping and rotational grazing into their farming practices. Both techniques are known to improve soil health and reduce emissions, but transitioning to them farm-wide can be difficult.

“You have to be pretty financially strong as a farm to be able to afford to make some of these changes,” said Karen Klassen, a member of Farmers for Climate Solutions — the group behind the report — and a grain farmer in Manitoba.

She recently transitioned her family’s farm out of a conventional, fertilizer-intensive farming model to one that uses more cover crops. The shift was beneficial for her soil’s long-term health and the environment, but it did reduce her yields for a few years as the soil was being restored, she said.

Reducing nitrogen use and changing land management practices are central to reducing the agricultural sector's emissions, but helping farmers transition to electric tractors is equally important, the report notes. Photo by Karen Klassen
Paying farmers to plant cover crops and use less fertilizer could reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 10 million tonnes, according to a new report by @FarmersClimate.

Farm debt is at record highs, and many farmers are dealing with razor-thin profit margins, making it difficult for them to imitate Klassen. Federal support would help them shift to more sustainable practices without going out of business.

That kind of support isn’t unprecedented. The EU offers roughly 73 times more subsidies per acre than Canada for its farmers to use more sustainable methods. The U.S., despite years of climate denial by the Trump administration, spends about 13 times more than Canada on similar programs, the report notes.

Last fall, the Trudeau government announced $350 million over 10 years to encourage more sustainable practices on Canadian farms, according to the report. While not enough to make a significant dent on the country’s agricultural emissions, the announcement was welcomed by advocates like Klassen and MacLeod.

Now, they want the government to use the 2021 budget to help the sector become more sustainable.

The short-term investment would also help determine which policies should be included in Canada’s next five-year agricultural funding plan, the Canadian Agricultural Policy Framework. Due for release in 2023, the document will shape agricultural policy during a critical period to reduce Canada’s emissions. Spending $300 million this year would make that plan more effective, according to the report.

Some farmers are already trying to make their businesses more sustainable; many others want to, but figuring out how can be challenging. Ensuring they have supports to transition to better practices without losing their livelihoods is essential to reducing the sector’s emissions, said MacLeod.

“We’re seeing people on the landscape that are making this work, (but) there’s so much risk on the farm and there’s a trepidation of making big changes and taking on additional risk,” he said. But even small changes can make a difference — and are a much-needed start.

“Don’t let excellence be the enemy of good,” he said.

Marc Fawcett-Atkinson / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer