Canada's Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-food is lagging in the fight against climate change because it does not have a plan to reduce the sector's greenhouse gas emissions, the federal environment commissioner has found.

On Tuesday, environment commissioner Jerry DeMarco released a report that slammed Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's (AAFC) climate policies and monitoring efforts. In particular, he noted the ministry botched the development of a key plan to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizers, leading to its demise at the hands of a months-long conservative disinformation campaign in 2022.

That effort saw Opposition Leader Pierre Poilievre and other key right-wing politicians attack the proposed program — a voluntary effort to reduce nitrogen fertilizer emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 — with false claims and conspiracies. AAFC has not released any policies related to the proposed initiative since a July 2023 report summarizing consultations about the proposal.

In a late 2022 interview with Canada's National Observer, then agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau singled out disinformation as a hindrance to effective climate action.

The report also highlighted that the ministry's three existing emissions reduction programs have only achieved two per cent of the sector's 2030 emissions reduction targets. The ministry’s failure to measure the effect of its programs means their impact could be higher, but it is impossible to know.

“AAFC’s contributions to reduce emissions … are integral to the fight against climate change, which is why setting targets and tracking results are so important,” said DeMarco in a statement. “Given the current climate crisis and limited results thus far, AAFC will need to ensure that all its expected reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for 2030 take place in the six growing seasons that remain.”

Agriculture is responsible for about 10 per cent of Canada's emissions; it is a major source of methane and nitrous oxide, which are potent GHGs. Between 1991 and 2021, the sector's emissions have risen by nearly 40 per cent, driven by increased crop production and fertilizer use.

AAFC has implemented three programs to reduce the sector's emissions: 14 research labs across Canada and two programs to help farmers adopt more sustainable farming practices and emissions-reducing technologies. Both funding programs were overwhelmed with applicants and were delayed by a year in disbursing payments, slowing the sector's ability to reduce emissions, the report found.

While AAFC has undertaken "extensive science-based work" to inform its current climate efforts, DeMarco noted that the ministry's failure to develop a comprehensive strategy deprived Canada's agricultural sector of "a long-term vision and direction." That will make it hard for Canada to effectively reduce the sector's climate impact, he said.

Canada's Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-food is lagging in the fight against climate change because it does not have a plan to reduce the sector's greenhouse gas emissions, the federal environment commissioner has found.

The report recommended AAFC establish "measurable outcomes" for its programs and evaluate its efforts to ensure they are harmonized with other federal or provincial initiatives. It also called on the government to develop a data-gathering strategy and assess the "funding and resources needed" to successfully reduce emissions from farming.

In a statement, AAFC spokesperson Samantha Seary said that "AAFC remains committed to taking a collaborative approach in seeking out and developing opportunities to reduce emissions in support of Canada’s environmental and economic goals. Since 2020, the Government of Canada has announced over $1.5B in funding to advance climate change mitigation in the sector...We will continue to implement a science-based approach to improving methodology and emissions tracking mechanisms in support of the development of programs that focus on the reduction of GHG emissions to meet Canada’s 2030 and 2050 emissions targets."

Some observers are not surprised by the environment commissioner's findings.

"I think it reflects the fact that agriculture was kind of late to the discussion around emission reduction," said Darrin Qualman, the National Farmers Union director of climate crisis policy and action. He noted it was only in 2020 that agricultural emissions became a focus for the federal government while internationally, last year was the first time farming was directly included in global climate negotiations.

Moreover, unlike transportation or home heating, the most effective emissions reduction techniques vary significantly from region to region and even farm to farm. The sector also needs to reduce three types of GHGs — nitrous oxide, methane and CO2 — that are generated from a suite of different practices, like fertilizer use, manure pits and burping cows.

"Agriculture is the most complex emission reduction challenge in Canada," he said. "But all that means [AAFC] should be moving even faster if it's gonna get in front of that challenge."

Updates and corrections

| Corrections policy
May 2, 2024, 09:30 am

Update: This story was updated on May 2, 2024 to include a response from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

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