CLI­MATE GROUND ZERO

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At Kevin Ben­der’s Red Deer-area farm, 2018 be­gan with the dri­est grow­ing sea­son the 48-year-old grain farmer can re­mem­ber and then turned into a cold, wet fall that forced an un­prece­dented five­week de­lay of har­vest.It was def­i­nitely an unusual year, but Ben­der — who serves as chair of the Al­berta Wheat Com­mis­sion — is not one to sug­gest there is any­thing more go­ing on than the nat­u­ral cy­cles agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers have dealt with for gen­er­a­tions. And he is cer­tainly re­luc­tant to pin the blame on man-made cli­mate change. “I’m a lit­tle hes­i­tant to jump on that band­wagon,” Ben­der says, while tak­ing a break from haul­ing grain on a re­cent Jan­uary morn­ing. “It’s farm­ing. You know, it’s not all go­ing to be beau­ti­ful ev­ery year.”

FARM­ERS FEEL SCAPEGOATED

Ben­der’s views are typ­i­cal of many Cana­dian farm­ers. While many ac­knowl­edge a rise in ex­treme weather in re­cent years — Prairie farm­ers re­port ex­pe­ri­enc­ing record pre­cip­i­ta­tion, flood­ing and drought in the last 10 years, ac­cord­ing to a Se­nate re­port re­leased in mid-De­cem­ber — they aren’t con­vinced that what they ’re see­ing is cli­mate change-re­lated. Many also feel un­fairly tar­geted, both by gov­ern­ment-im­posed car­bon taxes that threaten to hurt their bot­tom line as well as by a grow­ing con­sumer per­cep­tion that large-scale agri­cul­ture is bad for the planet.Cherie Co­p­ithorne-Barnes, a fourth-gen­er­a­tion rancher out­side of Cal­gary, gets frus­trated when she sees head­lines urg­ing peo­ple to save the Earth by eat­ing less meat. Ac­cord­ing to fed­eral gov­ern­ment cal­cu­la­tions, eight per cent of Canada’s to­tal green­house gas emis­sions can be at­trib­uted to crop and live­stock pro­duc­tion. How­ever, that is less than oil and gas (25 per cent) and trans­porta­tion (23 per cent).“We’re not deny­ing the fact that cat­tle belch, and that pure meth­ane is, in fact, com­ing out,” Co­p­ithorne-Barnes said. “But what we are say­ing is we’re not the main and prin­ci­pal cul­prit here. We’re just an easy one to sin­gle out be­cause we’re a rel­a­tively small in­dus­try. It’s the fear­mon­ger­ing that I’m con­cerned about.”

CAR­BON TAX OP­PO­SI­TION

It’s not just pub­lic per­cep­tion that has Co­p­ithorne-Barnes, for­mer chair of the Cana­dian Round­table for Sus­tain­able Beef, wor­ried. Like many agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers, she fears that cli­mate-re­lated gov­ern­ment pol­icy changes, such as the car­bon taxes man­dated by sev­eral prov­inces as well as the Cana­dian fed­eral gov­ern­ment, will put her at a com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage with farm­ers in other coun­tries.While Al­berta did cre­ate an ex­emp­tion for “pur­ple gas” (gaso­line and diesel pur­chased for on-farm use) when it in­sti­tuted a car­bon tax for the first time in 2016, farm­ers are still sub­ject to the car­bon tax in many other forms, from the nat­u­ral gas used to heat large barns to the in­creased costs they pay for fer­til­izer and live­stock trans­porta­tion.All of it im­pacts the bot­tom line and makes it less likely farm­ers will in­vest in new tech­nolo­gies and equip­ment that can ac­tu­ally help the en­vi­ron­ment, she said.“I looked into putting up so­lar pan­els on my shop on my land, but it was go­ing to cost too much,” Co­p­ithorne-Barnes said. “Ev­ery time we are taxed from a car­bon tax per­spec­tive, it makes it so it’s more dif­fi­cult to in­vest in these things. I can’t af­ford the lux­ury of do­ing the right thing.”The re­cently re­leased Se­nate re­port — which was pub­lished fol­low­ing months of cross-coun­try tes­ti­mony from farm­ers, sci­en­tists and other stake­hold­ers on the ef­fects of cli­mate change on agri­cul­ture — urged the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to con­sider widening the car­bon tax ex­emp­tion for farm­ers to in­clude heat­ing fu­els like propane and nat­u­ral gas. It also rec­om­mended al­low­ing farm­ers to earn car­bon cred­its for things they do that are good for the en­vi­ron­ment, such as se­ques­ter­ing car­bon in soil by pre­serv­ing nat­u­ral grass­land as pas­ture for cat­tle.Larry Thomas, en­vi­ron­ment and sus­tain­abil­ity man­ager for the Cana­dian Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion, said the Cana­dian beef in­dus­try has re­duced its green­house gas foot­print by 14 per cent since 1981 through ad­vance­ments in tech­nol­ogy and an­i­mal man­age­ment. Re­search into cat­tle ge­net­ics, for ex­am­ple, has al­lowed ranch­ers to select breeds that pro­duce the most amount of beef in the least amount of time, re­duc­ing the time the an­i­mal spends on grass belch­ing meth­ane.Thomas added there are also new tech­nolo­gies avail­able, such as spe­cial feed ad­di­tives de­signed to re­duce meth­ane pro­duc­tion, that have the po­ten­tial to re­duce the sec­tor’s GHG out­put even fur­ther. How­ever, such tech­nolo­gies are ex­pen­sive and would re­quire con­sumers to be will­ing to pay more for their beef.“It’s a very tight mar­gin busi­ness,” Thomas said. “If the pro­duc­ers are go­ing to shoul­der that cost, then it has to be cost-ef­fec­tive to do that. If it makes them un­com­pet­i­tive or non-prof­itable, I think it would be a non-starter."

RISKS AND OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES

Cli­mate mod­els sug­gest that ex­treme and un­pre­dictable weather — in­clud­ing more drought, flood­ing and storms — will in­creas­ingly be a prob­lem for Prairie farm­ers in the decades to come. Chang­ing tem­per­a­tures could also bring new in­va­sive pests to Cana­dian farm fields.How­ever, an over­all in­crease in av­er­age tem­per­a­ture and fewer frost-free days could make it pos­si­ble for Cana­dian farm­ers to grow a range of new crops — corn in cen­tral Al­berta, for ex­am­ple.“Canada is one of the few coun­tries whose agri­cul­ture, in cer­tain ways, might ben­e­fit be­cause of warm­ing grow­ing tem­per­a­tures,” said Sophia Mur­phy, se­nior spe­cial­ist with the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment.There may also be op­por­tu­ni­ties to find new ex­port mar­kets for our crops if agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion in other parts of the world is neg­a­tively af­fected by cli­mate change.Still, Mur­phy said that doesn’t mean farm­ers can be com­pla­cent.“A lot of the con­ver­sa­tion I see from farm­ers in Canada seems to be, ‘ Well, we cap­ture car­bon in the soil ... we’re do­ing great,’” Mur­phy said. “But agri­cul­ture over-ex­ploits a num­ber of re­sources that the whole planet is depend­ing on for its sur­vival, and car­bon taxes are just very ef­fi­cient. We do need to think about how car­bon taxes play out and do our best to en­sure they ’re fair — but to be fair, car­bon taxes can’t ex­clude agri­cul­ture.”

‘IT’S VERY DIF­FI­CULT TO AR­GUE THE SCI­ENCE’

Ron Bon­nett, a cow-calf pro­ducer in On­tario and pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Fed­er­a­tion of Agri­cul­ture, said while there is still an el­e­ment of cli­mate de­nial in the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity, he be­lieves more and more farm­ers are be­gin­ning to rec­og­nize that some­thing real is hap­pen­ing.“I think some an­i­mal rights groups have taken cli­mate change as an op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance their agenda, and the im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion from farm­ers when some­one tar­gets their in­dus­try is to get de­fen­sive,” Bon­nett said. “But I think it’s very dif­fi­cult to ar­gue the sci­ence ... and we’re see­ing it on our fields. I think some of the younger farm­ers com­ing into the busi­ness now are more in tune to what they see as the long-term im­pacts of cli­mate change.”He added he be­lieves farm­ers and gov­ern­ment need to move be­yond “po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing ” over car­bon taxes and cred­its and in­stead in­vest in re­search and tech­nol­ogy to pre­pare for the fu­ture.“Tak­ing a look at re­new­able fu­els, bio­prod­ucts, GPS tech­nol­ogy to fine-tune fer­til­izer ap­pli­ca­tions, there’s a whole se­ries of things that would help re­duce the car­bon foot­print of grow­ing crops and rais­ing live­stock,” he said. “I think farm­ers are likely go­ing to be the first to truly no­tice the im­pact (of cli­mate change). We have a chance to start a di­a­logue ... about what has hap­pened in the last 20 years and what is the po­ten­tial go­ing for­ward.”We’re just an easy one to sin­gle out be­cause we’re a rel­a­tively small in­dus­try.

Kevin Ben­der is feel­ing the weight of gov­ern­ment-im­posed car­bon taxes and isn’t con­vinced a rise in ex­treme weather is re­lated to cli­mate change.

Cherie Co­p­ithorne-Barnes gets frus­trated over the “fear­mon­ger­ing” about cli­mate change.

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