An overview of the Farmers for Climate Solution: Who they are and what’s included in their request for $300 million from Ottawa

(This article is targeted mainly to Canadian farmers interested in climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions linked to agriculture.)

A coalition called Farmers for Climate Solutions (FCS) released its request on February 24 2021 for $300 million in Government of Canada money for a collection of programs to reduce GHG emissions in Canadian agriculture. I’ve reviewed their request and various background documents released at the same time. My comments follow.

First some background. FCS was launched in February 2020. It’s a coalition of some organic groups, the National Farmers Union of Canada (NFU) and some environmental NGOs. It says that it’s farmer-led but the primary leadership seems to come from Equiterre, a Montreal-based NGO.

FCS says it represents 20,000 farmers. What that likely means is that its component members have 20,000 members. It’s appears that the interaction between FCS and other major Canadian farm organizations, to date, has been minimal.

FCS seems to be well funded, backed by some major left-leaning foundations. Its web site and related materials are highly sophisticated and professionally done. Its release on February 24 was matched by a supportive opinion piece the same day in the Globe and Mail. FCS is clearly well connected; not many groups could arrange for that. I believe this is well beyond the expertise of the NFU or any of the organic organizational members.

That said, FCS leaders get good marks for an initiative that is badly needed – how to reduce GHG emissions associated with Canadian agriculture. They have stepped into a space largely left empty, until now, by main-stream Canadian farm groups. (I do note the formation of the Agriculture Carbon Alliance, a coalition of mainstream groups on March 1, 2021; this is a welcome initiative, though starting a full year after FCS.)

FCS created a task force which contains several Canadian scientists for whom I have high respect. And it does appear that the task force played a major role in developing FCS policy. I personally agree with a good portion of what they have stated and proposed. But I also have some major questions about the rationale, implementation processes and omissions.

Here’s a link to the February 24 releases: .

FCS leaders and task force members identified six areas where they feel government money could be best spent to reduce agriculturally related greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. These are as follows:

  • Doing more with less nitrogen
  • Increasing adoption of cover cropping
  • Normalizing rotational grazing
  • Protecting wetlands and trees on farms
  • Powering farms with clean energy
  • Celebrating climate champions

The total ask is $300 million from Ottawa, plus another $115 million from Canadian farmers, for a total cost of $415 million.

Here are more specifics:

Doing more with less nitrogen

FCS has provided a well-written, well-researched background report on factors affecting nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from soils and the application of synthetic fertilizers (though not manure). The information is very similar to that provided in this report by Dr. Claudia Wager-Riddle, Dr. Alfons Weersink and colleagues at the University of Guelph. The FCS report divides Canadian farmers into just three groups based on assumed adoption of the “4R” strategy for responsible nitrogen management. I found this to be rather simplistic, given the wide diversity of Canadian agriculture and growing conditions.

Based on this report FCS recommends that Canada spend $115 million matched by a similar expenditure by farmers over two years. FCS documentation states that this money will be mainly used to hire a large number of agronomists to educate farmers on better N application procedures, to take a soil sample per farm to test for nitrates at the season end, and to take leaf tissue samples. My understanding is that this is to happen in 2022 and 2023.

However, my personal discussion with FCS indicates that their intent is actually broader with money being used to implement N2O reduction measures as well as just monitoring. That makes more sense to me as I cannot see how end-of-season nitrate testing, per se, will tell much until it has been done for several years and at several locations per farm, given the large variation in measurements expected because of locational and seasonal differences. Soil nitrate levels at season end depend strongly on annual differences in soil organic matter mineralization (conversion to inorganic N), weather and crop yields as well as fertilizer applications. Similar complications apply to leaf measurements of nitrogen content, with the genetic influence being very important.

Interestingly, the FCS analysis and plan resembles in several ways a strategy for N2O reduction that was developed by the Canadian Fertilizer Institute (CFI) 10 years ago. (Link is here.) I understand that this initiative did not proceed because of a lack of financial support by all Canadian governments except Alberta.

Perhaps there is opportunity to connect what FCS is proposing, including its major request for public funding, with what CFI has proposed. To add to that, I cannot see how the FCS strategy can be implemented in such short time frame without close integration with the sophisticated and extended network already existent with regional agronomists – most of them private and most being Certified Crop Advisors (see here and here).

The CFI plan as well as the scientific analysis in the FCS backgrounder both emphasize the value of slow-release forms of N fertilizer including urease and nitrification inhibitors and variable-rate-within-field N applications. That would be an excellent place to target government incentive money in my view. There may also be opportunities to reduce overall N application rates though one needs to be careful of analyses based on older crop data – given how crop yields, especially for corn and canola have risen so rapidly in recent years – and where calculations of optimum rates are based after the fact using knowledge of the weather that occurred during the crop growth season.

Increasing adoption of cover cropping

A background science-based analysis is provided to justify the expenditure of $115 million over two years to provide incentives for cover crop establishment. I am quite happy to see the government spend money encouraging cover crop usage as cover crops provide many benefits. However, I don’t believe that one of those benefits is nationally significant increases in soil organic carbon content (SOC), given Canada’s mostly cool/cold seasonal conditions – especially with the field crops which currently occupy most arable land acreage. My rationale, based on a review of many scientific reports and meta-reviews, is posted here.

With all due respect to the FCS task force members, I don’t think their scientific backgrounder on cover crops is very convincing. It’s in distinct contrast to the discussion on N2O. The FCS backgrounder cites three studies to support its claim that cover crops enhance SOC. I’m familiar with all three. Of them, one shows no statistical difference in SOC between soils with or without various types of cover crops, one states its data cannot be used for conclusions about soil C sequestration because of the lack of soil bulk density data, and the third made up for the lack of bulk density data by using data from other studies, sometimes even on other continents, while also including studies where the ‘cover crop’ was the only crop grown all season. The task force report does note that its estimates are often based on “limited evidence” and “expert opinion.” Core calculations for Canada are based essentially on very simplistic and speculative calculations. But then the report provides a series of quite detailed tables listing sequestration potential for various agricultural zones and crop species, including offsetting N2O emissions – giving the appearance of precision where such is not justified, at least in my humble opinion.

However, to repeat: I’d be happy to see a program providing inducements for cover crop planting. But the proposed cost is rather high – $115 million over two years – and its promise of GHG emission reductions of 2.2 Mt of CO2 equivalent seems highly speculative and unlikely.

I am suspicious that FCS leaders view this as a program to promote cover crops per se. There is an emphasis in the project description to the differential channeling of money on a per-acre basis to small farmers while making sure that the big guys don’t get too much. If your purpose is to reduce GHG emissions then an acre is an acre, and individual farms with large acreages would seem a priority target. But if your goal is some money to every farmer to plant some cover crops, then money per farmer rather than per acre is more attractive.

Normalizing rotational grazing

The request here is smaller – $25 million (but still large – perhaps exceeding the entire research budget of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada devoted to GHG reduction). The rationale is a mixture of better management of rangelands in Western Canada and introduction of other crop species into managed pastures. I don’t have enough background to judge the potential effectiveness of what they propose. However, I wish their analysis and purview had stretched further, to include the expanded use perennial forages in Canadian cropping programs. The Government of Canada National Inventory Report submission to the United Nations identifies more perennial forages as about the best way to increase SOC content on Canadian crop land. (For details see the 2020 Canada National Inventory Report, Part 2, Table A3.5-8; link is here.)

The FCS report completes ignores broader aspects of ruminant grazing/agriculture on GHG emissions such as methane emissions associated with forage digestion, and methane and N2O from manure. Indeed, the FCS report seems to ignore animal agriculture completely even though it represents about half of total Canadian GHG emissions, at least as calculating using protocols of the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change, United Nations).

Personally, if I had $25 million to invest in this general area, I would devote it to more perennial forage production and the developing (and exciting) new usage of new feed additives to reduce methane emissions from ruminants.

Protecting wetlands and trees on farms

This item promises a mitigation of 4.1 Mt of CO2 equivalent for an expenditure of $30 million. As I understand it, this is to pay farmers not to cut down woodlots and drain wetlands. The 4.1 Mt is not new sequestration but rather loss which might occur with tree removal and wetland draining.

The rationale is a bit hard to understand from an Ontario perspective in that we already have extensive laws to prevent forest removal and wetland draining (i.e., wet land being land that is water logged for a substantial portion of the year and not just for an extra week or two at time of spring planting). It’s true that these vary significantly across municipalities. However, I would argue that an expanded regulatory approach makes more sense nationally, rather than what would need to be continual payments to farmers to prevent destruction. $30 million would not go far in protecting all existing woodlots and wetlands – ideally grasslands too – on Canadian farms and ranches

Note this recommendation from FCS is in addition to the $3 billion that the Government of Canada committed to tree planting in its GHG policy announcements in December 2020.

Powering farms with clean energy

An expenditure of $10 million over two years for an unstated GHG benefit.

The money would be spent for retrofitting 100 diesel tractors per year and use of electric-powered tractors on small farms.

All modern diesel farm tractors have highly efficient emission control systems which outsiders (including farmer owners) are prohibited from doing much more than changing the oil. More usage of electric tractors will come but it’s not clear how this $10 million investment in Canada will make any difference.

One of the biggest opportunities for reducing farm tractor fuel consumption is via reduced or no tillage. That is not mentioned here. I understand why this might be a sensitive subject for FCS with its organic farm membership, and for whom frequent tillage is the norm. But better to focus on how to get organic farmers to till less – or not at all – and even feature technologies which discourage tillage usage like the use of glyphosate for vegetation control – rather than avoid the subject in the FCS report. To be fair, I note that options for reducing tillage are one of the current priority goals for several Canadian organic organizations.

Most critically, this section of the FCS report completes ignores biofuels and the Clean Fuel Standard (CFS) announced by the Government of Canada in December. A calculation that I did using data published in the Government of Canada National Inventory Report of April 2020 indicated that the use of biofuels now means a reduction of 6 Mt CO2 equivalent per year for Canada, with more expected with CFS implementation (analysis here). That’s more than any of the six strategies proposed in the FCS document.

Celebrating climate champions

The FCS are requesting $5 million to provide awards to “showcase and amplify the voices of farmers who are charting the path for sector-wide change.” I am a bit nervous about this as I could see it being very political. There is a strong bent towards organic farmers in photos and mini-bios in the February 24 documents. Of course, that’s not surprising since this is an organic/NFU/Equiterre led initiative. But who chooses the farmers, and what might be the criteria – low emissions per acre where organic shines according to some published analyses – or low emissions per unit of food produce where organic is generally inferior?

I think the government could probably find better ways to use $5 million to reduce GHG emissions in agriculture. My vote would go for credible scientific research.

What did they miss?

To add to – and emphasis in some cases – what I’ve stated above, I believe the report has some notable voids. These include:

  • Reduced tillage/no tillage. The Government of Canada National Inventory Report on national GHG emissions highlights the value of no tillage agriculture for enhancing SOC. The benefit is much clearer and better documented for the Canadian Prairies than for BC and provinces east of Manitoba, but research data from the University of Guelph demonstrate that this benefit can be substantial for certain soil-crop combinations in Ontario too. I expect the same applies in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Granted the annual benefit decreases with time as SOC increases, but the same applies for any other method of soil C sequestration (including cover crops to the extent that they provide this service). Current Canadian National Inventory Report statistics say that reduced tillage now means about a 4 Mt CO2 equivalent reduction in Canadian GHG emissions per year. (For more detail, see Table 6-9 here.) That’s larger than any item in the FCS list.
  • Livestock-related emissions. Reductions in GHG emissions through feed additives and manure management. About 30 Mt of CO2 equivalent emissions now occur because of ruminant metabolism and manure gases according to the National Inventory Report. There are good opportunities for reductions.
  • Great use of perennial forages in Canadian cropping, including opportunities for cash-crop production and marketing of crops like alfalfa. Several Ontario farmers including a farmer cooperative are already marketing high-quality forage produce in Asia.
  • Biofuels, building on the base outlined in the new Clean Fuel Standards of the Government of Canada. Biofuels mean about an annual 6 Mt reduction in CO2 equivalent net emissions currently. The potential is larger.

Next steps

The Farmers for Climate Solutions and its task force members are to be congratulated for their initiative in emphasizing the importance of strategies to reduce GHG emissions with Canadian agriculture and for drafting a proposal for steps forward. A logical next step would be for either FCS to engage with the 90%+ of Canadian farmers and farm sectors who are not part of the coalition to identify practical means for moving forward including opportunities not identified in the February 24 documents. Or an alternative is for main-stream agricultural groups to use what FCS has proposed as a base for developing their own proactive programs for reducing net GHG emissions.

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