CLIMATE GROUND ZERO
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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