What are the Realistic Opportunities for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Canadian Agriculture?

No-till soybeans planted in between rows of corn stalks

This overview is intended for those in Canadian agriculture interested in using proven, or partially proven, technologies to reduce net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through changes in farming practices.

If you don’t want to read further, my conclusions are:  Opportunities look greatest for reductions in nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions. Further reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions through more usage of no tillage are possible, and the potential to sequester soil organic carbon through increased perennial forage production exists, but it’s questionable that these will lead to sizable futures decreases in national GHG emissions. Cover crops, with a few exceptions, probably represent limited opportunity for soil C sequestration in Canada with our long winter and short off-season growing intervals, but may prove more valuable for reducing spring-time N2O emissions. Future reductions in methane (CH4) emission are dependent on the extent to which promising research on rumen additives can be implemented in practice.

Carbon Dioxide

Let’s start with CO2 because, globally and nationally, it’s the most important of the three major GHG gases.

(The three gases are CO2, N2O and CH4. When GHG emissions are reported as CO2, that means only the one gas, but when reported as ‘CO2 equivalent,’ or CO2e, that means the collective warming potential of all three gases – plus a few more gases unrelated to agriculture that have smaller effects – all weighted for their relative potential to affect global warming. N2O has about 298 times the warming potential of CO2 on a per-kg basis; for methane it’s about 25, calculated as the average 100-year effect.)

According to GHG accounting protocols specified by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), agriculture represents 8.1 % of total Canadian emissions, but with CO2 only representing 4% of that. These stats are as reported by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in its latest National Inventory Report (NIR) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). I’ve summarized Canadian data for 2018 here; the numbers for 2019 are virtually the same – ECCC 2019 summary here – entire report available here.

However, CO2 emissions associated with on-farm fossil fuel usage, biofuel manufacture/usage and net CO2 exchanges between farm soils and the atmosphere are not included in the NIR/UNFCCC calculations for agriculture. If these were in, the Canadian net agricultural emissions would represent 8.5% of the Canadian total (calculations here). Even with these additions and subtractions, CO2 still represents a very small percent of total net agricultural emissions.

If we go further and add GHG emissions associated with fertilizer manufacture (mainly N), the 8.5% grows to about 12%, with most of the increase being CO2, but with CO2 still being a relatively small portion of the Canadian agricultural total.

Finally, if the amount of carbon contained in products that leave Canadian farms and are exported were to be included, the total net GHG emission from Canadian agriculture would actually be negative – removal of CO2 from atmosphere exceeding all forms of ag GHG release. But that calculation remains far from IPCC calculation plans, at least as it appears now.

For the following discussion, I’ll focus only on two categories, net GHG exchanges for ‘Agriculture’ as reported by NIR/UNFCCC, and the agricultural soil portion of another category called, ‘Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry,’ or LULUCF.

The Canadian NIR recognizes three sources/sinks for CO2 in its LULUCF calculations for agricultural soils. These are: land converted to continuous crop production from periodic summer-fallowing, land converted to reduced tillage and no tillage from more intensive tillage, and land converted into perennial forage production from annual crop production, as well as the reverses.

Emission factors for these land-use changes reported in the Canadian NIR are shown in Table 1 (taken from Table A3.5-8 in Part 2 of Canadian 2020 NIR).

Table 1. Effective linear coefficients of soil organic carbon for land management changes (LMC); for the opposite changes – eg., no tillage to intensive tillage – the linear coefficients are negative of the values shown in column 3.

Of the three factors, the largest effect by far comes from a conversion of annual crop to perennial cropping. Unfortunately, the trend in recent years has been more of the reverse – perennial to annual – a result of better prices for annual crops and declining beef production in some provinces.

An increase in perennial crop acres, ideally as part of crop rotations with annual crops, would be very beneficial for soil organic carbon sequestration, but it is difficult to see how this will happen – given increasing public interest in plant-based (that generally means annual-crop-based) alternatives to ruminant meat. A fledgling cash-crop industry is developing in Ontario and perhaps other provinces for the production and export of high-quality alfalfa hay, but the scale is still too tiny to permit conclusions on whether this will grow to represent a significant means for increasing SOC on a national scale.

The shift from intensive to no tillage provides the smallest per-ha annual change. Table 1 may over-estimate the no-till benefit in Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec. Available research data are inconsistent as to whether there is a net positive no-till effect on soil organic carbon in this part of Canada. Research data show a more consistent increase in soil organic carbon with tillage elimination in the Prairie Provinces. But the biggest shift in Prairie crop acreage to no tillage may already have occurred.

A reduction in summer fallowing causes a larger per-ha annual effect than no tillage, but this is largely limited to the semi-arid Prairies where summer fallowing is still practiced to a significant extent – and this benefit declines as the portion of Prairie farm land available for summer-fallow elimination continues to shrink.

It must also be noted that the annual SOC sequestration provided by these changes in land management declines each year as shown below in Fig 1, extracted from the 2020 Canadian NIR. After 20-25 years, about 50% of the total GHG sequestration potential from a change in land management practice has been achieved.

Fig I. Changes in SOC sequestration with time after implementing changes in land management practices (from Fig A3.5-14 in Part 2 of Canadian2020 NIR). The dashed line denotes an annual sequestration of 25 kg/ha of SOC; once the estimated sequestration falls below this, the values are not included in Canadian LULUCF totals.

A popular means of sequestering soil organic carbon may be cover crops – at least as expressed at farm meetings and as featured in ag media of late. A number of global research publications also make this claim. However, in a recent review of the published evidence, I concluded that the likelihood for such is very limited in short-growing-season environments like Canada. There are exceptions – for example, red clover spring seeded into winter wheat, or for some horticultural crops where the off-season available for cover crop growth may be unusually long. Though I’d love to be proven wrong, I personally don’t see cover crops as a nationally significant option for CO2 sequestration. That may be the reason why cover crops are not included in the listing shown above in Table 1 taken directly from the Canadian NIR.

There is a strong alternative opinion to what I’ve expressed above. For one example, see this backgrounder written by the respected Dr. Brian McConkey (formerly with Agriculture and Agriculture Canada – AAFC – and now chief scientist with Viresco Solutions) for Farmers for Climate Solutions (available here, check Chapter 2). Dr. McConkey’s view is that a portion of any organic matter addition to the soil, no matter how small, contributes to SOC enhancement. That includes cover crops which may only produce a few hundred kg/ha of organic matter per season. His perspective may stem from this article written by Dr. Fan and a number of AAFC researchers including Dr. McConkey who conclude, based on computer models, that more organic matter addition to soil automatically means increased SOC content. However, the Fan article includes a series of graphs (Fig 5 in the paper, if you are looking) that predict, based on this perspective and these models, that the SOC percentage in farm soils of Southern Ontario should increase anytime the annual organic carbon addition exceeds about 3-4 tonne/ha.

But the annual organic matter addition to soil with a typical corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation is about 12 t/ha – which equates to 5 t/ha (assuming organic matter is 42% C) and yet the SOC content of Ontario farm soils in principal cash crop areas of the province is in decline. See following graph courtesy of Christine Brown, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), that is based on thousands of soil samples tested in Ontario labs.

There has to be more to SOC enhancement than just more added organic matter (not that the latter is not also important).

This paper containing results of a 10-year, multi-site study in Iowa provides an explanation. While the addition of organic matter including cover crops to soil will add additional organic matter, it can also increase the rate at which soil organic matter is respired – often resulting in no net gain in SOC.

McClelland et al 2020 in a meta-review found that SOC enhancement with cover crops was generally only significant when the annual cover crop dry matter accumulation was 7 t/ha or higher. Many cover crops in Canada produce only about a tenth of that.

In brief, while cover crops in certain situations may increase SOC, it is doubtful that collectively these represent an important opportunity to increase the carbon dioxide sequestration in Canadian farm soils. This is not to detract, at all, from other cover crop benefits, including important reductions in soil erosion.

Nitrous Oxide

The quantity of nitrous oxide (N2O) emitted each year, globally or nationally, is small compared to CO2, but the warming potential of a tonne of N2O gas is about 298 times greater. N2O represents about 5.2% of total Canadian GHG emissions measured as CO2 equivalents, but agriculture represents 76% of that according to the Canadian NIR.

Although some of the agricultural N2O comes from manure storage before field application, about 86% comes from the application of N fertilizers to farm soils, both synthetic N fertilizers and manure. There are some excellent reviews including this one done by a group of researchers at the University of Guelph as well as  this, this, this and this.

The research results are extensive and quite consistent:

  • Increased N application rates mean more N2O loss. Indeed, the simplest IPCC calculation protocol for estimating national N2O soil losses expresses loss as a fixed percentage of N applied. Research suggests that N2O loss actually increases exponentially with N application rate, meaning the last 10 kg/ha of applied N causes the biggest N2O loss on a per-kg basis. There have been numerous agronomic/economic studies of the most economical rate – complicated by large annual variations in both actual N losses and crop yields caused by differences in amount and intensity of rainfall. Rapidly increasing yields over time for some crops – corn and canola are examples – also complicate these calculations. How to provide the additional N without increasing N2O losses?
  • Fertilizer additives that slow the transformation of urea and ammonium forms of N fertilizer will reduce N2O emissions. The literature suggests an average of about 30% reduction with the combined usage of a urease inhibitor (slows urea transformation into ammonium) and a nitrogenase inhibitor (slows ammonium transformation into nitrates) for treatment of urea or UAN (urea plus ammonium nitrate) fertilizers. The reduction is also sizable, though less, with the usage of polymer-coated fertilizers.
  • Partial side-dress application of fertilizer N, as compared to full application of N at or before planting, does not appear to reduce N2O losses consistently as a percent of N applied. But because side-dressing reduces the total N application need, this means a reduction in N2O loss. A lot depends on when intense rainfall events occur relative to time of application.
  • In a recent paper, Eagle and several co-authors from across the North American Corn Belt concluded that N2O losses are more closely related to the difference between N applied minus N removed in harvested crops, than to N application rate per se. This means that variable application rates based on within-field differences in measured late-spring soil nitrate levels or historic differences in within-field yield represent another good option for reducing N2O losses.
  • For a given rate of soil N addition, any practice that reduces soil nitrogen losses for other reasons, eg., reduced ammonia volatilization with fertilizer incorporation or reduced leaching loss of nitrate will often tend to increase N2O losses, so there are management tradeoffs.
  • N2O loss also tends to increase with Increases in soil organic matter content, so a tradeoff once again.

So what does all this mean? With the use of N fertilizer inhibitors, and adding combinations of partial side-dress N application and within-field variable N applications, it should be possible to reduce N2O losses by 30-50% or more with synthetic N fertilizer usage – with the cost for added technology being offset, at least in part, by lower average N fertilizer application rates.

Manure N seems more complicated. IPCC Tier 1 guidelines (the approach countries are to use in calculating GHG emissions when they lack the data or expertise to permit more sophisticated calculations) calculate a lower percent conversion of available N into N2O with manure compared to synthetic fertilizers. However, that is not well supported by North American research results that show that, on average, the two loss ratios are about equivalent. See references cited above.

To that, add the complication that manure is often applied to fields in the late summer or autumn – after wheat harvest, for example – to provide fertility for the crop to be planted the following spring. In provinces/states/countries – like Ontario – with substantial autumn and early spring rainfall, that can mean major N off-season losses via leaching, and N2O emissions.

Data summarized by OMAFRA indicate that 50 to 80% of the N content in late-summer/autumn–applied manure may be lost in off-season months. (The percentage varies across types of manure and whether incorporated or not.)

One solution is to apply manure in spring before or after crop planting but that can be logistically difficult in years with wet springs. Manure additives may reduce the problem though that’s a subject on which I have no knowledge.


Cover crops may sequester limited CO2 in Canada but could be very valuable for reducing early-spring N2O losses.

Cover crops are an opportunity to reduce emissions but this is a source of uncertainty. Research by Dr. Wagner-Riddle and colleagues at the University of Guelph (see publication here, and personal communication) has shown that early spring N2O emissions are significantly lower with a cover crop like winter rye. A substantial portion of the year’s total annual N2O emissions can occur during this short period; the cover crop effect seems to be one of reducing the depth of frost penetration, or maybe the number of early-spring freeze-thaw cycles.

However, other researchers at the University of Guelph hold a different opinion. “Conservation tillage, [and] cover cropping … increase N2O emissions,” state Ashiq et al (2021) as a highlighted conclusion in a recent review. My read of the literature indicates such an unqualified conclusion is probably inaccurate, though it likely reflects any effect of cover crops, if present during the main growing season, in preserving soil moisture and, hence, increasing the likelihood of anaerobic soil conditions for N2O formation.

Non-legume cover crops are well recognized for their value in reducing soil nitrate levels in autumn, and the expectation is that this will reduce the potential for autumn-winter-spring leaching losses. Cover crops may thus reduce the amount of nitrate available for N2O formation in early spring. But if the cover crop dies quickly following late-fall-early-winter frosts, thus releasing nitrates back into the soil profile in weeks to follow, this may mean more nitrate available for N2O formation in early spring – maybe even more than with no cover crop at all. Legume cover crops mean more soil nitrate availability and the potential for more N2O formation, especially at time of cover-crop death.

A very informative meta-review was published in 2014 by Basche et al. They found 29 relevant studies of paired comparisons – cover crop versus no cover crop. Of those, 40% found a decrease in N2O emissions with cover crop usage and 60% found an increase. In general, there was more likely to be an increase in N2O with cover crops when: the cover crop was an N-fixing legume versus grass/cereal or other species; the residues from killed cover crops were incorporated into the soil versus left on the surface; and when N2O emissions were measured during the initial time of cover-crop residue decomposition versus for longer periods of time. The reviewers also state that, to the extent that cover crops reduce nitrate losses from leaching, they will also reduce off-site N2O losses which can be substantial though not measured in any of the 26 studies.

A best option seems to be cover crops that remain fully viable over winter followed by no tillage so as to not incorporate residues. But getting them killed in time to not affect the growth and yield of the subsequent spring-planted crop can be a challenge – again especially in years with above-average spring rainfall. Dr. Eileen Kladivko of Purdue University provides a good discussion on these options here.

Cover crops may ultimately prove to be of much more value in reducing GHG emissions by suppressing N2O formation, than by sequestering soil carbon, but it is difficult to be certain at this time.


The greenhouse gas, methane (CH4), represents a much smaller quantity of global emissions than CO2, but provides a substantially higher ‘warming potential’ per tonne. Unlike N2O and CO2, CH4 has a relatively short half-life in the atmosphere (about 10 years) before being broken down into water and CO2 molecules.  Methane represents about 13% of total CO2e emissions for Canada, according to IPCC-based calculations, of which about 31% comes from agriculture – and 86% of the 31% comes from ruminant digestion. There are a couple of key issues though I’ll spend limited time on them here as they are addressed well elsewhere, including here and here.

Beef cattle grazing. Photo courtesy Dr. Vernon Baron, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lacombe, Alberta

One involves the fact that IPCC calculations, based on average warming effects of GHG gases over 100 years do not work well for short-lived gases like methane, with its half-life of about 10 years. And based on an improved calculation procedure developed at Oxford University, the true long-term GHG effect of methane should be much smaller than in the numbers submitted by Canada and others in their annual NIR. This is especially true for Canada where methane emissions from ruminant livestock have been in decline for about the last 15 years. However, a related blog with analysis that I posted in September 2020 has generated about zero interest, and I’m not seeing much greater interest in related articles written by those with much stronger credentials and connections. I’m not optimistic that the work from Oxford U will result in any change in calculation protocol specified by IPCC for annual NIR submissions.

One problem is that the improved calculation methodology also applies to methane emissions associated with fossil hydrocarbons. That’s most of the 69% in Canada not represented by agriculture. This includes natural gas pipeline leaks. Politically, few in the environmental/climate-change lobby want to make changes that would be seen to benefit ‘Big Oil and Gas.’

The other issue involves the potential use of seaweed extracts and other rumen additives to reduce methane production. These technologies look very promising though are largely still at the ‘proof of concept’ stage of development. More R and D work will be required before they can be truly classed as a principal solution for reducing GHG/CH4 emissions associated with ruminant agriculture.

From a broader agricultural perspective, any technology that encourages beef/sheep production will also encourage greater use of perennial forage crops in Canadian farm crop rotations – with major benefits to soil quality and C sequestration opportunities.

Scope for Zero Emissions?

The focus of international discussion, at least in high-profile circles of late, is not so much strategies for partial reductions, but rather, for zero net emissions. Nations and corporation are both competing for media attention in announcing their new strategies for achieving zero emissions by 2050 or even sooner. The cynic in me doubts that most of these mean much as they depend on major future use of technologies that are far from proven, and/or calculations based on avoiding future GHG-producing practices (e.g., credits for not cutting down trees or draining swamps). They also depend on a level of political and public support which is not yet apparent.

So what’s the prospect for zero emissions in agriculture? I’m not aware of many attempts by main-stream agriculture to tackle this question but there are a few. I give credit below to two farm/agricultural groups that have attempted to develop/define strategies, even though I think that both have major flaws.

One is the National Farmers Union for England and Wales which, in this document, describes a strategy for achieving zero emissions from agriculture by 2040. The strategy is based in part on a national strategy developed by the Royal Society. In the NFU’s plan to eliminate the current emission total of about 45 Mt CO2e, it proposes to achieve about 25% of that by reductions in direct emissions of CO2, N2O and CH4 from farming; 20% by additional C sequestration in farm soils, fence rows, farm woodlots and wetlands; and about 55% by the  combination of biofuel production/consumption coupled with the storage of CO2 released in ethanol manufacture using  ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) technologies (essentially underground storage of CO2, though the NFU leaves the door open to other CCS options).

It’s a big stretch to assume that either the sequestration or biofuel-CCS goals are achievable, but full marks to the NFU for offering something.

Another report is one done by the Aspen Institute in Colorado for the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA). The report, based in part on an analysis of negative emission and sequestration technologies by the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering (it, in turn, based on an earlier report by Eagle et al), projects that US agriculture could reduce net GHG emissions by 147% by expanded use of technologies such as no tillage, cover crops, better grazing methods and use “frontier” technologies now in early stages of development. (USFRA, in a more recent report with the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research and based on an analysis done by a team led by the Nature Conservancy, states that the potential offset is actually more than 200%, though with much of this coming from the management of new and existing forests on farmer-owned land.)

One problem with both the NFU and the USFRA proposals is that, even if the projected reductions were to be attained, most of them would not be credited to ‘Agriculture.’ Rather, the credits would go to other sectors such as ‘Energy’ (for biofuels) and Land Use and Land Use Changes (for C sequestration).

 Using the present IPCC calculation methodology, one could offset 100% or more of agricultural emissions with soil carbon storage – as in the Aspen-USFRA calculations – and still have agriculture identified as the source of about 8-10% of national GHG emissions as at present.  With the NFU strategy, 75% of the projected GHG reductions/offsets would not be credited to Agriculture.

In brief, while it may be important politically for agriculture to portray that it has plans to achieve zero emissions by mid-century (as the NFU has done), my conclusion is that this is not achievable using even semi-proven technology known today, and especially with current accounting procedures.

Bottom line:

Sizable opportunities exist now to reduce nitrous oxide emissions in agriculture using proven technologies, and with others looking promising – eg., selective use of cover crops to reduce N2O spring-time emissions. The potential for methane emission reduction is promising if new rumen-additive technologies prove feasible. The opportunities for C sequestration appear more limited unless means can be found for more greatly expanded use of perennial forages in farm crop rotations.

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: https://farmersforclimatesolutions.ca/budget-2021-recommendation .

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.

Do Cover Crops Increase Soil Organic Carbon Content? What do the Meta-Reviews Say?


I’ll start with a definition: I think most agriculturalists take ‘cover crop’ to mean a crop grown in the same year as a primary crop such as a harvestable grain or horticultural crop, and that’s what’s assumed in this article. As noted below, some authors also include crops grown alone for the full season, solely for soil quality enhancement.

Current enthusiasm within agriculture in cover-crop usage is well placed. These crops provide clear benefits in protecting soil from water and wind erosion, providing end-of-season livestock feed, enhancing biodiversity, supplying significant quantities of legume N fertility for use by subsequent crops, and removing nitrates from soil at the end of the growing season (though the fate of nitrates thereafter often remains uncertain).

In addition, major attention is being placed on the potential for cover crops to sequester photosynthetically fixed carbon dioxide (CO2) as soil organic carbon (SOC). This includes discussion on possibilities of paying farmers for doing this.

There have been many research trials completed and several meta-reviews published. This column contains a review of what the meta-reviews say individually and collectively – and what it means for agriculture and net greenhouse gas emissions, especially in a northern climate like Canada.

This article is written primarily for an agricultural audience interested in more depth than generally found in media and agricultural ‘extension’ reports, but less than in found in scientific papers. My column has not been peer reviewed although I have checked analytical details with several of the authors cited below.

I’ll start with my conclusions: The evidence is convincing that cover crops often mean more SOC. This benefit is largely proportionate to how long the cover crop grows, how much cover-crop organic matter is produced, and the average annual temperature of the location. A measurable effect is much less likely when the season of growth is short, e.g., when cover crops are seeded after longer-season harvestable crops and/or when the off-season consists of many months of frozen winter. Most authors assume that more SOC with cover crops means increased carbon sequestration, which is probably true in many cases. But the other possibility is reduced or no loss of soil organic matter when cover crops are present, as compared to soil with no cover crop.

That said, notable weaknesses are common in many of the research summaries, including:

  1. Reports based very few years of cover cropping (sometimes only one).
  2. The inclusion of data from experiments where the ‘cover crop’ was the only crop grown for an entire season – and, hence, not really a cover crop by the definition stated above.
  3. The inclusion of experiments measuring percent SOC or soil organic matter only, with no data provided on soil bulk densities especially for cover-crop treatments in the studies. Procedures have been developed for estimating the missing bulk-density values, but these generally introduce sizable errors.
  4. Different sampling depths within or among experiments – range from 2.5 cm to more than 100 cm (though few below 30 cm) – often with simple calculations used to ‘standardize’ to a common depth.

In addition, with one exception which included Chinese literature, none of the reviews included research reports written in languages other than English.

 I’ll refer to these in turn as we look at the results of the various meta-reviews. I should emphasize in advance, that all of the reviews represent a huge amount of work, with authors making major efforts to adjust for weaknesses and inconsistencies in the data sources used. I am most appreciative of that. But at the same time, it’s fair to examine their conclusions in light of how the limitations are addressed.

Now to the specifics.

Eagle et al (2012) of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University, published Greenhouse gas mitigation potential of agricultural land management in the United States: A synthesis of the literature, which includes a chapter called Use winter cover crops. Thirty one field studies were examined with a calculated average annual soil organic carbon gain equivalent to 1.3t/ha/year of CO2 (range -0.2 to 3.2) or 0.35 t C/ha/year. However most of the data referenced in this review came from California and southeastern states. There were six comparisons from states further north, three from Iowa where the cover crop treatments actually caused a slight reduction in rate of soil organic C accumulation and three from Michigan with gains ranging up to 1.83 t/ha/year of CO2. The Michigan studies were comparisons of an organic rotation of corn-soybeans-wheat plus cover crops with conventional corn-soybeans-wheat grown without cover crops. When I checked publications/web-sites, cited in these publications as providing more details on methodology, I was unable to find some key details on organic practices used, specifically the source of N fertility. Was the fertility provided by manure or other organic amendments? I don’t know. Hence, I suggest viewing the Michigan results with caution.

Eagle et al also refer to a study from Maryland in which the percent organic matter was higher in a cover crop treatment; they did not include this study in their calculation of mean effects because there weren’t data on bulk density and quantities of soil organic C per unit soil surface area. A summary table published by Eagle et al includes three model calculations and one “expert opinion,” all projecting more SOC with cover crops.

In essence, the Eagle et al review shows consistently more soil organic C with cover-crop usage in southern states, but an uncertain-to-zero benefit in the US Midwest.

Poeplau and Don (2015) published Carbon sequestration in agricultural soils via cultivation of cover crops – a meta-analysis, with the analysis involving 30 studies, 37 sites and 139 plots. The studies were in 11 countries, including Canada and the United States, and across four continents. Number of treatment years ranged from one to 38 and sample depth from 2.5 cm to 120 cm though with only three studies having samples “below the plough layer.” They calculated an average rate of soil C accumulation in cover-crop treatments, compared to plots without cover crops, of 0.32 + 0.08 t/ha/year of organic C. This paper and this quantity have been cited many times in other publications in support of statements that cover crops increase soil organic carbon.

For no other apparent reason other than I’m Canadian, I chose to check details of the four cited studies which were from Canada. They are:

Campbell et al, 1991, Effect of crop rotations and cultural practices on soil organic-matter: microbial biomass and respiration in a thin black chernozem. Can. J. Soil Sci. 71, 363–376. A 30-year study in Saskatchewan

Curtin et al, 2000.Legume green manure as partial fallow replacement in semiarid Saskatchewan: effect on carbon fluxes. Can. J. Soil Sci. 80, 499–505. A nine-year study in Saskatchewan.

Hermawan and Bomke, 1997. Effects of winter cover crops and successive spring tillage on soil aggregation. Soil Tillage Res. 44, 109–120. A one-year study in British Columbia.

N’Dayegamiye and Tran. 2001. Effects of green manures on soil organic matter and wheat yields and N nutrition. Can. J. Soil Sci. 81, 371–382. A five-year study in Quebec.

Of the four studies, three (Campbell et al, Curtin et al and N’Dayegamiye and Tran) all involve ‘green-manure crops’ grown without any other crop for the growing season and not the definition of ‘cover crop’ given at the beginning of this column. I did not check the other 26 cited studies in this review, but it is quite possible that there are additional ‘green-manure’ studies of the same nature included in the analysis by Poeplau and Don.

A second concern for me with this review is that only 30% of the cited studies contained data on soil bulk density. The authors estimated bulk density values for the other 70% using the graph below copied from their paper. It is based on collective data from the 30% of experiments with bulk density data across all countries.

Poeplau and Don 2021-02-17 09_52_01-Window

Ignoring the one outlier value (which seriously distorts the R2 and p calculations), the line looks like a reasonable fit for the other data. That notwithstanding, the values for bulk density predicted by the graph still appear to have a range of at least +0.05 g/cm3 for a given percent C content. For a soil horizon that is 22 cm deep and about 1.5% SOC, this range in bulk density equates to 3.3 t/ha of organic C, or about 10 times the predicted average accumulation rate of 0.32 t/ha/year advantage for cover-cropped plots.

A third unease for me involves the process used to standardize all organic C measurements to a depth of 22 cm using average measured or predicted bulk density for the assayed horizon – thus mathematically ignoring the normal tendency for SOC concentration to decrease with depth. One might argue a more sophisticated transformation process is not warranted given uncertainties introduced by the bulk density estimates. But it is still another source of imprecision.

In summary, in my view, results of the analysis by Poeplau and Don are sufficient to indicate that cover crops often mean a higher soil C content, but not nearly enough to merit a conclusion of a rate of gain of 0.32 + 0.08 t/ha/year.

As part of an extensive 2019 report called Negative emissions technologies and reliable sequestration, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in the United States included a short section recommending cover crops as a means of sequestering soil carbon. However, it only cited two references, Eagle et al (2012) and Poeplau and Don (2015), the two reviews discussed above.

Mcdaniel et al (2014) published a meta-analysis entitled, Does agricultural crop diversity enhance soil microbial biomass and organic matter dynamics? It involved 122 publications with 454 observations. The review featured additional crops inserted into monocrop cultures or simple rotations, and a substantial number of the studies (I don’t think the authors don’t say exactly how many) involved cover crops. About two-thirds of the studies were from North America and the rest distributed globally. Because only 19% of the studies included measurements of soil bulk density to permit the calculation of soil organic carbon content per unit land area, Mcdaniel et al reported only the soil organic carbon concentrations. Because soil samples within individual studies sometimes came from different depths, Mcdaniel et al converted these to an average depth per experiment with no weighting for changes in bulk density with depth. (For their rationale, see Johnson and Curtis, 2001.) There was no adjustment to a common depth across studies.

Mcdaniel et al concluded the inclusion of cover crops increased the soil organic carbon concentration by 8.5% relative to plots with no cover crop. This was a much greater effect than for all other crop rotational comparisons combined in their analysis. The relative SOC boost with cover crops increased with increases in average annual temperature across the various research locations.

The authors defend their use of percent soil organic carbon (i.e., as g/g x 100%) instead of the use of soil organic carbon stocks (t/ha) by the presentation of an appendix graph showing no significant relationship between “% change from monoculture” and soil bulk density. It’s based, I believe, on observations from the 19% of surveyed studies that had bulk density data. Their assumption is in disagreement with the graph presented above from Poeplau and Don showing a trend for bulk density to decline as percent SOC increases.

If bulk density declines as percent SOC increases, this means changes in t/ha of SOM with cover crop addition would be expected to be less than the measured changes in percent SOC.

Kaye and Quemada (2017) in a paper entitled, Using cover crops to mitigate and adapt to climate change. A review, concluded that “Cover crop effects on greenhouse gas fluxes typically mitigate warming by ~100 to 150 g CO2e/m2/year” with “the most important terms in the budget [being] soil carbon sequestration and reduced fertilizer use after legume cover crops.” Their conclusion on carbon sequestration is based largely on the analyses done by Eagle et al (2012) and Poeplau and Don (2015), which are discussed above.

Norris and Congreves (2018) in a review entitled, Alternative management practices Improve soil health indices in intensive vegetable cropping systems: A review, identified 60 studies where various practices had been used in attempts to improve soil health. They selected 22 of these studies, 11 involving cover crops, for a meta-analysis. The meta-analysis revealed no significant relationship between the presence or absence of cover crops and SOC. (It is assumed that SOC is expressed as a concentration rather than t/ha or equivalent in this review, though I don’t believe the authors actually say so.)

Abdalla et al (2019) published a review entitled, A critical review of the impacts of cover crops on nitrogen leaching, net greenhouse gas balance and crop productivity. Using the Web of Science data base they chose 106 studies involving several key words including, ‘cover crop,’ ‘soil organic carbon’ and ‘SOC.’ The range was global but most studies were from the United States/Canada, Europe and China. The objectives of this meta-analysis included the dynamics of soil nitrogen as well as carbon. For questions about SOC, the authors selected the 47 studies containing data on SOC in t/ha (or equivalent) or the combination of percent SOC and bulk density so that SOC in t/ha could be calculated. The authors adjusted SOC data to a standard depth of 30 cm based on an assumption that SOC decreases with depth at a rate of 2.14% per cm of depth. The rationale for that transformation comes from research by Jobbáy and Johnson (2000). While there is good research showing that the rate of change in organic C content with soil depth is not constant (tillage has a large effect on rate of change; see here for example), this adjustment is likely superior to the assumption of no change with depth to 22 cm in the analysis by Poeplau and Don.

Abdalla et al concluded that across all studies, cover crops increased SOM significantly with a certainty of P<0.001. However, this table copied from their paper, shows no statistically significant relationships at all.

In every grouping in their summary table (legume cover crops, non-legume cover crops, mixed and total), the average change in SOC is less than the standard deviation. It’s essentially the same for total greenhouse gas emissions including nitrous oxide.

In my view, the Abdalla et al paper lacks strong evidence that cover crops enhance soil organic C content.

Bai et al (2019) published Responses of soil carbon sequestration to climate smart agriculture practices: a meta-analysis. They selected 417 peer-reviewed papers studying the effects of biochar, reduced tillage and cover crops on soil carbon concentration. Of those, 64 papers featured cover crops with half of those done in the United States. On average across all studies, cover crops increased SOC concentration by 6% – though less but still statistically significant when the growing season was cooler. Although the authors don’t comment on this finding specifically, one graph in the review paper compares the cover crop effect for the 258 paired comparisons involving irrigated agriculture versus the 25 that were just rain-fed. For the latter, cover crops produced no significant change in SOC concentration. The authors state they did not calculate SOC sequestration for cover crop treatments because of the absence of bulk density data.

Jian et al (2020) published A meta-analysis of global cropland soil carbon changes due to cover crop which involved 131 studies and 1195 comparisons. Sixty percent of the studies were from the United States and Canada with the rest spread globally. The authors included papers written in either English or Chinese. Several sources were used for identifying studies including the references cited in the Poeplau and Don paper. Because of that, and the fact that ‘green manure’ was used as a search word, I assume that the studies used included some with crops grown solely for soil quality enhancement for the entire season but not harvested.

Fifty percent of the studies included measurements of soil bulk density, 21% had bulk density data for the check treatment only – in which case the cover crop treatments was assumed to have the same bulk density – and 29% were studies where an estimate of bulk density was made by Jian et al using the same procedure as used by Poeplau and Don (see above).

Jian et al did not attempt to standardize the data to a common soil sample depth, but just divide the results into two categories, those with measurements up to 30cm in depth and those from deeper depths.

The authors calculated an average soil organic carbon increase of 0.56 t/ha/year with cover crop (including some green-manure) crop usage, compared to the no-cover-crop check treatments. The pattern was generally consistent across crops and crop rotations, but with greater SOC enhancement for clay soils versus those with medium and course texture – and only for soil samples collected at or above 30 cm of depth.  The authors found a statistically significant trend for cover crop SOC enhancement to decrease as the mean annual temperature of the location became cooler and the latitude increased (i.e., for places like Canada).

The cautions I’d have with this review involve the inclusion of some studies with full-season cover crops/green-manure crops, and bulk density estimates made using data on SOC concentrations.

McClelland et al (2020) published results of a meta-analysis entitled Management of cover crops in temperate climates influences soil organic carbon stocks: a meta‐analysis. It involved 40 studies and 181 observation. The studies were mostly from the US and Europe (many from Italy), all from between 23.5 and 66.5 latitude (northern or southern hemisphere). They only used studies where they had reliable information on soil bulk density – although sometimes sourced from external sources – at least for the check treatment. All calculations of soil organic carbon content, expressed as t/ha or equivalent, were standardized to a common depth of 30 cm using the Jobbáy and Johnson (2000) technique described above for Abdalla et al.

The authors calculated an average increase in SOC with cover crops of 1.11 t/ha across all studies, compared to no cover crops. They found the greatest differences when cover crops: provided continuous year-round cover or were early-autumn planted and terminated before winter; with no-till cropping versus conventional tillage; when the above-ground cover-crop biomass accumulation was highest; when soil clay content was higher; and when grown in what they termed subtropical and tropical environments. In total, for studies from locations in temperate environments, there was no statistically significant increase in SOC with cover crop usage. A close relationship was found between the time duration between cover-crop planting and termination dates and the enhancement in SOC.

McClelland et al found that SOC accumulation, compared to no cover crop, was substantially higher for tests/plots accumulating more than 7 t/ha/year of above-ground cover crop biomass compared to those accumulating 7 t/ha/year or less.

One strange result was that authors found no relationship between the duration of cover crop usage (i.e., number of years since cover cropping was initiated) and SOC enhancement. In their discussion, the authors suggest that, because the average cover crop duration among studies was 5.2 years, this means an average annual C accumulation rate of 1.11t/ha divided by 5.2 years = 0.22 t/ha/year.  I suggest that they have a very weak statistical basis for that assumption. (It critically underestimates the measured SOC in tests with only 1-2 years of cover cropping and overestimates in tests from cover crop 8-10 years in existence.)

Crystal-Ornelas et al (2021) published Soil organic carbon is affected by organic amendments, conservation tillage, and cover cropping in organic farming systems: A meta-review. The review included eight comparisons of with and without cover crops. The measurement was only of SOC concentrations, not soil organic carbon stocks, and the overall difference was not statistically significant. However, for three comparisons involving only the upper 15 cm of soil, cover crops meant a significant increase in SOC concentration. There was a reverse trend, though not statistically significant, for five studies with measurements down to 50 cm.

Chahal and Van Eerd (2018), in a paper entitled Evaluation of commercial soil health tests using a medium-term cover crop experiment in a humid, temperate climate, established identical adjacent experiments in two consecutive years at Ridgetown Ontario on sandy loam soil.  Each involves a rotation of several field and horticultural crops with four cover crop treatments and one with no cover crop. While this paper is not a multi-study review like the others, I’ve included it here because of its special relevance to Ontario agriculture where I live and farm. Inclusion also reflects appreciation for the enormous amount of work that this research has entailed.

The authors measured the soil organic carbon content and bulk density for the upper 15 cm of soil in all plots in early September of the sixth year after the initiation of each experiment. There was no effect on cover-crop treatment on soil bulk density. A significant increase in SOC in mg/g of soil with cover crops was measured in both tests, compared to the no-cover-crop controls. See the second column in the table below. (Values followed by the same latter within each test are not significantly different at P = 0.05.)

Using these data and the measured bulk densities of 1.62 (Test A, sampled 2015) and 1.66 (Test B, sampled 2016), I have calculated the equivalent quantities in t/ha of SOC for the upper 15 cm of soil; see values in column 3 of the table. The authors published equivalent numbers (t/ha of SOC), using the same base data in a 2020 paper. These are shown in the fourth column in the table. The values I’ve listed were extracted from a bar graph in the 2020 paper using the software program, Greenshot. I am not clear as to why the values differ between the two papers for Test B but not Test A.

Notwithstanding the above, the data show a consistent cover crop effect on SOC enhancement, relative to no cover crop plots, in both trials and both papers. That’s consistent also with the length of time cover crops grew after short-season horticultural crops were harvested in this study.

Table: Data on soil organic carbon for two cover experiments at Ridgetown Ontario, from Chahal el al papers (2018, 2019 and 2020)

TreatmentSOC, mg/g, 2018 paperSOC t/ha, 2018 paperSOC, t/ha, 2020 paperSOC, mg/g,2019 paper
Test A, planted 2007, measured September 2015
No cover33.8c82.182.1c27.7ab
OSR + Rye37.2a90.491.1a30.9a
Test B, planted 2008, measured September 2016
No cover34.0b84.763.6c28.2b
OSR + Rye36ab89.682.0a28.7ab

However, I have two reasons to be uncertain about the results.

The first is that the quantities shown in columns 2-4 are well above the 3.8% soil organic matter concentration that the authors measured at the beginning of the studies. The quantity 3.8% soil organic matter (SOM) is equivalent to about 22 mg/g SOC assuming SOM is 57% carbon. Twenty-two mg/g SOC equates to about 50-55 t/ha of soil C assuming a bulk density of about 1.6 and soil depth of 15 cm.

The second reason involves a second set of SOM data which the authors obtained from the sample soil samples collected at the same times in September 2015 and 2016. These were sent for analysis at an analytical service lab at Cornell University, with the results published by Chahal et al (2019), and also shown in the fifth column in the table above. These quantities are more similar to the SOC concentration measured when Test A was started. They do show a trend for higher SOC compared to no cover crop with cover crop treatments containing cereal rye. However, the amount of SOC enhancement measured is less than in the 2018 and 2020 papers.

I must emphasize that my comments about divergent data in no way detract from the high regard I have for Dr. Van Eerd and her research team, and their extensive research on soil quality. Even with the uncertainties I’ve raised, the research results indicate that higher SOC did occur some cover crop treatments.

I also want to acknowledge that Dr. Van Eerd was the one who alerted me to the reality that higher SOC values in cover crop treatments do not necessarily mean net carbon sequestration. It can equally means less loss in SOC with use of cover crops compared to no cover crops.

Bottom Line: What’s the overall conclusion?

A very substantial amount of research effort has gone into assessing the effect of cover crop usage on soil organic carbon, with apparent strengths and weaknesses in all of the studies. None of the reviews considered research reports other than those written in English – with the exception of Jian et al which also included reports in Chinese. Given that cover crops are of much interest to applied agriculturalists in non-English speaking countries – and notably Europe – the inclusion of reports in other languages in the meta-reviews would have been useful.

Despite the above, it does seem clear that use of cover crops commonly means more soil organic carbon relative to no cover crops. This is especially so when the growing season is long with average annual temperature relatively high and when the cover crops are grown for a long duration. The latter is more likely when the main cash crop matures very quickly (example, for some horticultural crops) or when the cover crop is in place for most or all of the full growing season (eg., between rows of perennial crops like grapes or as a full-season green manure crop). This also applies for a common practice in temperate winter-wheat growing regions like Ontario where red clover is ‘frost-seeded’ into wheat stands in early spring and allowed to grow until terminated in late autumn.

Conversely, the chance for significant, measurable increases in soil organic carbon seems much less likely when the cover crop is planted after harvest of a full-season, or near-full-season, primary crop and killed later that autumn or before spring planting the following year – and in climates where no crop growth occurs for many months of winter.

Published research also shows that soil organic carbon enhancement is more likely to occur on soils with higher clay contents than those high in sand.

The analysis by McClelland et al showed a distinct difference in relative SOC accumulation for tests/plots accumulating more than 7 t/ha/year of above-ground cover crop biomass versus those accumulating 7 or less. As a starting point, 7t/ha/year might be a useful yardstick for judging whether a detectable cover crop effect on soil organic carbon is to be expected for a given site, or not.

I note that McClelland et al found an even closer statistical fit between length of time from planting to termination and SOC level, but this is difficult to apply where the time from planting to termination may include many months of no growth (eg., winter in most of Canada).

I suggest that none of the studies reviewed above gives a reliable estimate of the rate of annual SOC improvement that might be achieved at any given location with cover crop usage. The limitations in published data include:

  1. Reports based very few years of cover cropping (sometimes only one).
  2. The inclusion of data from experiments where the ‘cover crop’ was the only crop grown for an entire season – and, hence, not really a cover crop by the definition stated above.
  3. The inclusion of experiments measuring SOC or soil organic matter percentages only, with no data provided on soil bulk densities, especially for the cover-crop treatments. Procedures have been developed for estimating the missing bulk-density values, but these introduce sizable errors.
  4. Different sampling depths within or among experiments – range from 2.5 cm to more than 100 cm (though few below 30 cm) – often with simple calculations used to ‘standardize’ to a common depth.

In addition, none of the research reviewed included situations where cover crops were used for late-season grazing by ruminant animals.

Update on Fuel Ethanol: Its Value in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Canada

Ten years ago, Karen Daynard and I produced a detailed report for the Grain Farmers of Ontario on various issues relating to use of corn-based ethanol as a gasoline additive. Since then, while government policies in Canada, the United States and many other countries have continued to encourage this practice, there is also negativity in the media and other public statements about fuel ethanol. This column contains an overview of addition information published since our report was written, with a focus on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is targeted to those, especially in agriculture, who seek more information than contained in media reports but not to the detailed extent found in scientific papers.

The bottom line: The use of grain-based ethanol in Canada means about a 45% reduction (and perhaps at least 49%) in net greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline – and that’s including indirect effects on land usage in both Canada and internationally.

More detailed analysis follows, starting with a brief historical perspective.

Since the modern era of biofuels began about 40 years ago, the reasons for ethanol usage have changed. Initially ethanol was welcomed as an octane enhancer when lead was removed from gasoline.  In addition, because of its high oxygen content, ethanol addition to gasoline meant more complete fuel combustion and reduced ground-level concentrations of carbon monoxide caused by cold-engine operation in winter, especially in vulnerable cities like Denver and Calgary. Changes in automobile engines have largely eliminated the latter as an environmental concern, but the need for octane enhancement remains.

Since the Iranian conflict in 1979, there has been continuing major interest in the United States (not so much in Canada) in production of home-grown biofuels to reduce dependence on petroleum imports. This led to debate on the extent to which ethanol inclusion actually increased energy supply. Subsequent analyses – references here – showed that corn-based fuel-grade ethanol contains about 160% as much combustible energy as was used for its production a decade ago, with that percentage likely now in the vicinity of 200% in Canada.

Biofuels experienced a set back in about 2007-2008 when their production from grain and oilseed crops led to loud criticisms that this usage increased food shortages and raised food prices. Follow-up analyses showed that, while this effect was real, it was much smaller than proclaimed in initial analyses and media statements (more detail here). In the United States, analyses showed that any increase in food prices was more than counter-balanced by ethanol-induced reductions in transportation fuel prices.

However, this did dampen enthusiasm for biofuels to some extent, leading to increased interest in use of non-food crops for biofuel production. (This also meant introduction of some rather strange public policies such as encouraging the conversion of food crop land to the production of non-food crops for biofuel production.)

Ethanol policy now focused on reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – and indirect land use changes

Beginning about 2000, public policy on biofuels became driven primarily by climate change and the opportunity for fuel ethanol and biodiesel made from agricultural crops to reduce net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This has been the main driver for post-2000 federal and provincial/state programs introduced to encourage biofuel usage in Canada, the United States and Europe – including the Clean Fuel Standard announced for Canada in December 2020 (more detail here).

A major influence on ethanol public policy was a high-profile paper published by Searchinger et al in Science in 2008. In it, the authors claimed that net GHG release with fuel ethanol usage was greater than that of the fossil-based fuels which ethanol replaced. This, they calculated, was because of the obligate clearing and conversion of forests and grasslands into food/feed grain production, to replace the grain now used for fuel production. Searchinger et al, using a combination of their own calculations and the FAPRU computer model developed by Iowa State University and University of Missouri, calculated that this ‘indirect land use change’ (ILUC) equated to an average of emission of 104 g CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per MJ (million Joules) of combustible energy with fuel ethanol. This compares to a total of 92 g/MJ CO2e with gasoline production and combustion – and only 74 g/MJ CO2e for all other emissions associated with grain-based ethanol.

The report by Searchinger et al caused quite a stir and prompted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to release a major calculation of its own in 2010, pertinent to the US Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) of 2007. EPA calculated that, while the ILUC factor was significant, it was about 70% less than the value published by Searchinger et al. EPA also calculated the GHG emission associated with all non-ILUC factors was about 45 g/MJ CO2e for ethanol from corn, versus the 74 g/MJ published by Searchinger et al. EPA projected, further, that with improvements in efficiencies expected by the year 2022, combustion of an average litre/gallon of grain-based ethanol in the United States would mean a 21% reduction in net GHG emissions compared to the same quantity of gasoline, adjusted for differences in caloric energy content. (Ethanol has a combustible energy content of 23.5 MJ/l – million Joules per litre – versus 33.5 MJ/l for gasoline.) The 21% exceeds the 20% minimum needed to qualify for inclusion under the RFS.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) initiated its own review of the GHG balance with ethanol-blended fuels, first with the release in 2017 of a study done for USDA by Washington DC-based ICF, and then by a peer-reviewed paper published in 2019 in Biofuels. J. Lewandowsky of USDA was senior author of the latter. The two reports are similar though not identical; the later uses updated input data where available. As with the EPA report, the Lewandowsky et al/USDA-LCF analyses depend heavily on computer models available from several sources. The numbers shown below come from the 2019 paper.

Their analyses include calculations of net GHG emissions associated with corn-farming inputs including fuel and fertilizer, offsets from production/usage of byproducts of ethanol manufacture, associated effects on animal agriculture, ILUC both domestic and international, rice methane emissions (greater grain usage for ethanol means changes in rice production with its sizable methane emissions), fuel and feedstock transportation, fuel ethanol production, and emissions during fuel combustion (some methane and nitrous oxide emissions result from ethanol combustion in engines).

Table 1. Net greenhouse gas emissions, expressed as grams of CO2 equivalent per Mega-Joule of energy (g/MJ CO2e) in gasoline or ethanol, according to different sources/calculations.

2021-01-19 14_07_09-Biofuel table.docx - Word

Note: The categorization of emissions with ethanol production/combustion is taken from Searchinger et al (2008) with data presented in Lewandowsky et al, (2019) matched up as possible. The category, ‘Ethanol feedstock production and associated emissions,’ includes effects on rice methane production and livestock emissions. ‘Indirect land use change’ includes both domestic and international.

Detailed explanations of the respective differences among the calculations of Searchinger, EPA and Lewandowsky et al are beyond the scope of this column. Readers are referred to Lewandowsky et al for more explanation. Suffice it to say that the reasons include the use of data from different years, different assumptions, and updated/revised and different computer models for estimating the various quantities.

Biofuel policy must also recognize global differences as well as common goals

Interestingly, Dr. Searchinger addresses the same issue again in a chapter in Creating a sustainable food future, published by World Resources Institute (WRI) in 2019 (full report here; my critique on the full report here). Searchinger does not mention the analyses done by EPA (2010) and the USDA-ICF report in 2017. (The Lewandowsky et al paper of 2019 may not have been published in time for consideration for the WRI report.) His basic argument is that any significant increase in crop usage for biofuels must mean a corresponding reduction in land for food production – and hence, the need to convert forests and grasslands into new agricultural land for food production. He largely ignores a couple of key issues: 1) the corn being used to produce ethanol for fuel in North America comes in large part from yield increases – and to some degree from shifts within total grain crop hectares – rather than additions in new arable crop hectares and 2) policies that encourage developing countries to grow their own food rather depending on imports from grain producers in the developed world are to be encouraged.

The vulnerability of developed countries to large-scale food importation was made painfully apparent during the food price crisis of 2007-08. (See here for more detailed discussion and references.) The fact that sizable quantities of grain are being used to produce ethanol in the United States and Canada instead of depressing prices for farmers in developing countries should be viewed as a positive. This is not to argue that increased biofuel production is beneficial for countries where domestic grain supply is limited. The world is not a homogeneous supply-demand market place for agricultural commodities – even though that appears to be a basic assumption (and flaw, in my view) in the WRI analyses.

I will enlarge on the Canadian corn supply-demand situation as affected by ethanol later in this column.

If one uses the Lewandowsky et al (2019) calculations as being the most representative of current conditions, the usage of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline represented a 38% reduction in net GHG emissions compared to gasoline on a caloric basis, in years around 2015, with this projected to rise to 43% by 2022. Note that Lewandowsky et al estimate that the reduction could become as high as 71% (calculations not shown) by using best practices for reducing GHG emissions in both producing feedstocks and in ethanol refining.

To provide balance, readers are referred to this article published by a group named the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) in Washington DC, which is critical of most of the calculations presented in USDA-LCF. Unlike the articles by Searchinger et al (2008) and Lewandowsky et al (2019), the ICCT report is not in a peer-reviewed publication.

What about Canada?

A final issue involves the extent to which GHG reductions caused by the substitution of ethanol for gasoline differ for Canada compared to the United States.

Jayasundara et al (2014) published a thorough analysis of energy and greenhouse gas emissions associated with corn production in Ontario using data from about 2006 to 2011. About 70% of Canadian corn is grown in Ontario. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to compare most of their numbers with the values shown in Table 1. Firstly, data in Jayasundara et al are expressed in kg CO2e per tonne of grain, which necessitates a conversion to MJ of energy in ethanol – not that difficult with certain assumptions (eg. litre of ethanol per tonne) but a source of uncertainty. The Jayasundara et al calculations also include items such as energy used to make farm equipment, for seed production and for other operations not included in the analyses shown in Table 1.

In total, Jayasundara et al calculate that an average of 281 kg of CO2e was released per tonne of corn grown in Ontario from 2006 to 2011. If it is assumed that about 420 l of ethanol are produced per tonne of corn (see Table 8 in Lewandowsky et al for a reference), this equates to 670 g CO2e per lite or about 28 g CO2e per MJ (23.5 MJ/litre). This value is well above those shown in the second data line in Table 1.

However, analyses using data from Jayasundara et al, unlike the others, include no credit for byproducts produced in ethanol production, including the high-protein DDGS (‘distillers’ dry grains with solubles’) that represents about 30% of the dry weight of the initial grain feedstock. Calculation of the associated effect on net GHG emissions is not simple as it needs to include offsetting effects on the production and usage of other high-protein livestock feed sources and on livestock production per se.

If one assumes a value of 12 g CO2e/MJ of ethanol calculated by Lewandowsky et al for byproduct credits (a weighted average for US dry-mill and wet-mill ethanol plants), this means 28-12 = 16 g/MJ of CO2e for ethanol with byproduct credits. This is still above the 13 g/MJ calculated for USDA-LCF (2019) in Table 1, recognizing that the Jayasundara et al calculation includes more GHG-linked costs for ethanol production.

Another option is to use the comparisons with US data which are presented by Jayasundara et al. They refer to a study by Farrel et al (2006) showing average US GHG emissions per tonne of corn to range from 282 to 477 kg/t of CO2e. Another by Liska et al (2009) shows a range of 261 to 385 kg/t for 12 Midwestern Corn-belt states. Jayasundara et al state that the Liska et al values must be increased by 11% to account for operations included by Jayasundara et al but not by Liska et al. In total, these comparisons mean that the 281 kg/t of CO2e calculated for corn production in Ontario lies at or below the lower end of the range reported in US studies.

A decade or more ago, ethanol production in the US was considered to be less efficient than in Canada because of the extensive use of coal in US ethanol plants but not Canada. However, that difference has largely disappeared. All US dry-mill ethanol plants are now fired by natural gas as in Canada, and most US wet-mill plants are as well.

Somewhat more energy is used for grain corn drying at harvest in Canada than the US but the US uses much more fossil energy for irrigating corn (almost none for corn in Ontario).

An overall conclusion from the above is that fuel ethanol production/usage as a gasoline substitute in Ontario/Canada is likely to mean even somewhat larger reductions in MJ/l of fuel than the values shown for the United States in Table 1.

In the Clean Fuel Regulations published by the Government of Canada on December 18, 2020, a default value of 49 g CO2e per MJ is assumed for both Canadian and US-sourced ethanol. This is quite similar to the 52 g/MJ calculated by Lewandowsky et al for 2022 (Table 1). (Though beyond the scope of this article, there is a small but significant difference in how the US and Canada calculate the energy content of fuels; see this reference for an explanation of the difference between “lower” and “higher” heating values, with the US generally using “lower” and Canada “higher.”)  The value, 49g/MJ of CO2e, represents a 47-49% reduction compared to gasoline. A more thorough life-cycle analysis is presently being completed by the government, presumably for both Canadian and US-produced ethanol; completion date is unknown.

The conclusion from all of this: The use of grain-based ethanol in Canada means about a 45% reduction (and perhaps at least 49%) in net greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline – and that’s including indirect effects on land usage in both Canada and internationally.

Appendix: What has ethanol production meant for corn production in Canada?

Major production of fuel ethanol began in Canada in 1996 with the opening of a Commercial Alcohol, now Greenfield Ethanol, plant in Chatham Ontario. (A small fuel ethanol plant was started by Mohawk Oil at Minnedosa Manitoba in 1981 and another by Poundmaker Agventures at Lanigan Saskatchewan in 1990.) Further major expansion occurred with the opening of additional Greenfield Ethanol plants and other plants across Canada, such that production about tripled between 2005 and 2011. Exact data are difficult to secure since Statistics Canada only reports corn usage for all food and industrial processing for Canada (and not at all for Ontario where most corn is grown and processed), and this category also includes corn dry milling to produce food products plus ethanol for beverage alcohols and other consumer and industrial products.

Nevertheless, in the graph below taken from various reports from Statistics Canada, one can see (brown line) the rapid increase in corn usage for food and industrial use from 2006 to 2011 – essentially all of the increase being caused by increased fuel ethanol production.

By contrast, feed usage of grain corn (yellow line) peaked about 2002 to 2008, declined thereafter (likely in part because of the substitution by DDGS), and with recent recovery to near the levels of a decade and a half ago. Total domestic usage of corn (red line) has increased steadily from 1997 to the present, with this mostly exceeding domestic production (light blue line) for years before 2011 but about equivalent to production in years since.

One can see that the increased production has come from a combination of increased yields (dark blue) and planted hectares (green).  Interestingly, the 400,000 of increased hectares planted to grain corn in Canada from 1997 to 2020 matches up about exactly with a 400,000 ha reduction in perennial forage/hay production in Ontario over the same interval (data not shown) according to Statistics Canada.

Changes in number of hectares used corn/ethanol production for all of Canada are overshadowed by larger shifts in production of larger-hectarage crops in Western Canada over this period and a steady transition of Prairie farmland from summer fallowing to crop production. In fact, this shift from summer fallowing to cropping has resulted in reduced net GHG emissions from Canadian farm soils since 2005 according to data reported by Canada to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (more detail here).

In total, while some increase in land seeded to corn has occurred in Canada since 2006, one would be hard pressed to show that increased fuel ethanol production from corn has resulted in transition of land in forest and grassland into corn production.


Major thanks is extended to Mr. Don O’Connor, president of (S&T)2 Consultants of Delta, British Columbia,for his help in accessing some of the background material used for this article and for his critique of a draft copy. That notwithstanding, any errors or misinterpretations in the resulting product are solely the responsibility of the author.  

Overview of New Canadian Clean Fuel Regulations – Implications for Biofuel and Farmers

This overview is organized in two parts: The first involves the general nature of the Clean Fuel Regulations and its carbon credit requirements for fuel producers and marketers. The second part is specific to farmers supplying feedstock to bioethanol and biodiesel plants.

The overview is written, primarily, for those in Canadian agriculture seeking to know in simple terms what the Clean Fuel Regulations (also commonly called, Clean Fuel Standard) are all about and how it will affect them.


Image courtesy of Grain Farmers of Ontario

On December 18, 2020 the Government of Canada released details of its long-awaited Clean Fuel Regulations. This follows an announcement, one week earlier, on how Canada intends to meet its Paris Accord commitment for a 30% reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to the base year 2005 (details here and here).

Prior to the December 11 announcement, Canada had only announced a plan for a 19% reduction (more details here). The two December announcements are about the missing 11%.

The 11% gap equates to about 80 Mt of greenhouse gases (aka, GHG, measured as carbon dioxide equivalents, or CO2e) in 2030, of which up to 20.6 Mt CO2e – or one-quarter – is projected to be achieved through the new Clean Fuel Regulations.

The lengthy document published in Canada Gazette Part I on December 18 contains the proposed regulations, consisting of 160 sections and 19 schedules, and prefaced by an equally lengthy “Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement.” The following is a quick overview focused on how this affects biofuels and farmers who grow feedstock grain and oilseeds.

In simplest terms, the government has set a base for carbon intensity for liquid fuels which declines from 91.8 gCO2e/MJ in 2022 to 82.5 gCO2e/MJ in 2030. “Carbon intensity” means net CO2 released during manufacture of both the feedstocks and liquid fuels, and during combustion. (MJ means millions of Joules of combustible energy – 33.5 MJ/litre for gasoline and 38.4 MJ/litre for diesel.) On a per-litre basis, these carbon intensity targets equate to 3.08 and 3.53 kg of CO2e/litre for gasoline and diesel, respectively, in 2022, and 2.76 and 3.17 kg/litre MJ in 2030.

(Note that the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement lists the carbon intensity range as 90.4 to 81.0 g CO2e/litre, versus the numbers shown in the previous paragraph that are copied from the Regulations themselves. I don’t understand why the discrepancy – quite possibly an error – and am using the values listed in the Regulations.)

For companies producing/marketing liquid transportation fuels, a quarterly calculation is made of the difference between the average carbon intensity of their products. Where this amount is below the carbon intensity target, the company must achieve/secure offsetting credits, each ‘credit’ being 1 tonne of CO2e.

During the initial two years of implementation, beginning in December 2022, the carbon intensity target is still quite high and many oil companies will accumulate credits during this period for the reason explained below. These credits can be banked and used to offset credit needs during a few years to follow. But additional C credits will be required starting in 2026 or 2027 as the banked credits are used up and carbon intensity requirements become more demanding.

This is illustrated in Fig 1 extracted from the Canada Gazette Part I Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement.

2020-12-26 09_44_59-Canada Gazette, Part 1, Volume 154, Number 51_

Fuel companies will be required to secure the credits needed by a combination of five routes.

One of these involves improvements in the GHG efficiency of fossil fuel production and refining. This also includes energy savings achieved by co-generation of heat and energy, and the sizeable amount of CO2 that will be pumped into oil-wells to increase crude oil flow. This unground storage of CO2 is the primary reason for the accumulation of credits for initial years shown in Fig. 1. However, the opportunity for CO2 storage is also expected to maximize by about 2024. The credit only applies for added capacity.

A second source of credits involves the usage of “low intensity carbon fuels,” including bio-based ethanol and biodiesel. The precise amount of the credit per litre/tonne depends on life cycle analyses still to be completed (an interim calculation lists the carbon intensity of ethanol and biodiesel as 49 and 26 g CO2e/litre, respectively).

The Clean Fuel Regs have included minimum contents of 5% bioethanol and 2% biodiesel, which are currently required for Canadian gasoline and diesel. Some provinces require more, or will require more by 2030.

The Clean Air Regs refer to three categories of “low intensity carbon fuels.” These are described in Section 33(1) of the regs as follows. Note that virtually all farm crops to be used to manufacture biofuel are in category (c). The regulatory requirements are substantially less stringent for categories (a) and (b).

From Section 33(1)

[A] quantity of a feedstock is eligible if the feedstock

(a) is not derived from biomass;

(b) is sourced from any of the following:

(i) animal materials, including manure,

(ii) used animal litter or bedding,

(iii) used or inedible organics from a residential area, a retail store, restaurant, a caterer or a food processing plant,

(iv) used fat and used vegetable oils,

(v) industrial effluents,

(vi) municipal wastewater,

(vii) used construction and demolition materials,

(viii) secondary forest residues that are byproducts of industrial wood-processing operations,

(ix) forest biomass from clearing activities not related to harvesting, including infrastructure installation, fire prevention and protection, pest and disease control, and road maintenance, or

(x) waste used to produce biogas from a waste processing facility; or

(c) is not sourced from a material or source referred to in paragraph (b) and is sourced from agriculture or forest biomass.

The additional demand for bioethanol and biodiesel created by this option is not expected to be substantial until about 2028. The Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement says that a substantial portion of this increased demand, especially for ethanol, is likely to be imported.

A third option for securing credits is through increased supply of non-carbon based energy sources. The document devotes a lot of text to describing how companies can obtain credits by augmenting home recharging capacities for electric motor vehicles.

And there are two other options: One involves buying credits at a cost of $350 per tonne of CO2e by contributions to new funds for developing/promoting new GHG-reducing fuel technologies. And the other involves buying credits from other companies with surpluses to sell, as made available through an auction process.

There are limits as to the quantity of offsetting credits that fuel suppliers can secure using most of the options described above.

Implications for Canadian Farmers

One of the stated goals of Clean Fuel Regs is to prevent/minimize harm to biodiversity and prevent the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands in the production of feedstocks for expanded biofuel production.

The regulations list some rather draconian procedures that farmers would need to follow, either individually or in groups, in order to supply crops for the manufacture of bioethanol and biodiesel. As initial plans for the Clean Fuel Regs were outlined to farm groups and others earlier in 2020, these were the only options for Canadian farmers. Absurdly, the proposed requirements were less stringent for imports from the United States which involve adherence to the US Renewable Fuel Standard.

Fortunately, this has been largely corrected in the Canada Gazette Part I wording (specifically, Section 40) released on December 18:

40 (1) A feedstock that is a crop, crop byproduct, crop residue or short-rotation woody biomass crop is also deemed not to have been cultivated on land referred to in section 38 if the Minister decides that

(a) the country in which it was cultivated has not exhibited a net expansion of cropland greater than 2% since July 1, 2020 and that it is not likely to exhibit such an expansion in the future; and

(b) it is unlikely that producers of the feedstock will use land that was not cropland on July 1, 2020 to cultivate feedstock in the future.

The wording is somewhat strange in that it seems to refer to imports from other countries. But this works for Canadian farmers if 1) the word “country” in 40 (1)(a) also includes “Canada,” and 2) the amount of cropland devoted to crops (principally, corn, soybeans, wheat, canola and barley) used to produce biofuels does not change much. (It hasn’t in recent years.)

It’s of interest that the Canadian Clean Fuel Regs refer to the need to preserve wetlands while the US Renewable Fuel Standard does not. But with the blanket Section 40 provision shown above, that should not a major competitive disadvantage for Canadian grain and oilseed farmers.

As one of those Canadian farmers, I express appreciation to farm groups including the Grain Farmers of Ontario who lobbied for needed changes. See the GFO statement here.

Here’s also a release from Renewable Industries Canada (formerly the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association).

Before closing, the following merit special mention:

  1. The market demand for bioethanol and biodiesel created by the new regulations will not materialize in sizable quantities until about 2028.  Much can change in the either years between 2020 and then (including at least two federal elections).
  2. The regs treat ethanol and biodiesel (and grains and oilseed used to produce them) equally whether imported from the United States or produced in Canada. This is as it should be in an open market environment. Unfortunately, the far greater subsidy support being provided to US grain farmers versus Canadian, at least as of late 2020 when this is posted, is of serious concern. Further, the possibility of countervailing duties to offset this differential is not a realistic solution.
  3. Further to point #2, when the life cycle analyses are completed of GHG emissions associated with the production of biofuels, there may be an advantage for ethanol produced from Canadian corn. Irrigation, which requires lots of energy, is used much more for corn production in the US versus Canada. Energy used in transportation may also be a factor.
  4. The third point is that what was published in Canada Gazette Part I on December 18 is a draft regulation. The final version will be published, after a 75-day comment period, in Canada Gazette II, probably sometime in late 2021. Changes are quite possible – indeed likely.

I express appreciation to Mr. Don O’Connor of (S&T)2 Consultants Inc., Delta, British Columbia, and Dr. Paul Hoekstra, Vice-president for Strategic Development, Grain Farmers of Ontario, for comments that were valuable in the drafting of this column. However, responsibility for errors or opinions expressed above is solely the author’s.

What Percentage of Canadian Net Greenhouse Gas Emissions are caused by Agriculture? It all depends on How They Are Calculated?

The percentage of Canadian greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by agriculture is anywhere between 4 to 12% depending on what’s included, what’s not and the calculation method. The percentage even becomes negative when the photosynthetic carbon content of farm products is included. The calculation method has a direct bearing on how various corrective actions that are or might be adopted by farmers affect agricultural GHG statistics and balances. Details below:

With the election of Joe Biden as US president, and with the arrival of new vaccines to end to the Clovid pandemic, concerns about climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will return to centre stage. Agriculture will be a prominent part of the discussion and anticipated government actions.

It’s critical that those of us who live in agriculture provide guidance and leadership. Because if we don’t, others will gladly fill the void.

The agriculture/GHG relationship is very complex. Proposed corrective solutions depend so much on what’s counted as an agricultural contribution. Official government reports to the United Nations, as done now, do not include some key sources and sinks for agricultural emissions. Examples of how several proposed agricultural ‘improvements’ could actually have no effect at all on reported agricultural contributions are described in this column. First, a quick look at the complications.

What’s in annual reports to the United Nations on Agricultural GHG emissions and what’s not

The annual national accounting of GHG emissions, called the National Inventory Report (NIR) that many countries including Canada submit annually to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is based on guidelines specified by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Included in the agricultural category of GHG emissions are methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions associated with livestock agriculture, manure, rice paddies (major source of methane), soil fertilization and management, and carbon dioxide (CO2) released during crop residue burning and with soil applications of urea and lime. Not included are: CO2 transformed into or released from farm soil organic matter; fuel/energy used on farms (eg., field operations, barn heating, electricity, crop drying, farm product transportation); CO2 sequestered as wood in orchard crops, woodlots, windbreaks and fence rows; emissions associated with the manufacture of fertilizer, other annual inputs and farm machinery; and biofuels. To enlarge on the latter: IPCC protocol states that countries do not need to include CO2 emissions associated with biofuel combustion, but the credit for that in NIR calculations goes entirely to the transportation sector, not agriculture.

When it’s all added up using IPCC calculation protocols, agricultural net emissions, reported as CO2 equivalents (CO2e), are about 8-10% of national totals for many developed countries including Canada. Some details and comparisons are provided in an earlier column. But the actual number may be significantly higher or lower, depending on what else is included.

Certain countries have included some of the additional quantities (both positive and negative) for agriculture in supplementary data submitted to UNFCCC. This often includes CO2 sequestered into or released from farm soils. Curiously, Canada does not do this. The only supplementary sum included in the Canadian NIR is the addition of fossil fuel consumption for farm operations. (A corresponding agricultural biofuel credit is not included.)

In the earlier column, I showed what the effect would be with the inclusion of soil carbon sequestration and biofuel credits in the Canadian agricultural totals. Table 1 from that article is copied below. (Note that LULUCF stands for the UNFCCC category – Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry – that includes soil carbon sequestration.)

Table 1: Canadian agricultural GHG emissions (Mt CO2 equivalent) including credits and debits for LULUCF, on-farm fuel usage and Canadian biofuel consumption.

 200520182018/2015% of Cdn total
Total Canadian gross emissions730729100100
LULUCF (sinks), Canadian total-13-131010 
Canadian total, gross emissions plus LULUCF717716100 
Ruminant digestion, CH43124  
Manure management, CH4 and N2O99  
N2O from soil fertilizing, management1925  
Agriculture total, reported to UNFCCC6059988.1
Add LULUCF credit-10-6  
Agricultural total with LULUCF added50531067.4
Add biofuel credit-1-6  
Add on-farm fossil fuel usage1214  
Total, biofuel and farm fuel included61611008.5

Table 1 does not include GHG emissions associated with the manufacture of fertilizer, especially N-containing fertilizer ingredients. (Significant energy is required to convert N2 gas to NH4+ and NO3containing fertilizers, although modern N fertilizer plants are at least twice as efficient than those of a few decades ago. See recent review article here. A considerable amount of fossil-fuel energy is also needed to convert phosphate rock into phosphate fertilizers. Not so much for potash (potassium) fertilizers.)

Desjardin et al in a 2020 review entitled, The Carbon Footprints of Agricultural Products in Canada (available here), estimated the CO2e emission associated with manufacture of fertilizer and pesticides at about 1% of total Canadian GHG emissions with about another 1% for other items like machinery manufacture and electrical supply. Adding these to the quantities in Table 1 means the total GHG net emission contribution for Canadian agriculture could be anywhere between 7 and 12% of the national total – depending on what’s included and what’s not.

We also need to consider divergence advice on how to calculate methane emissions. As I’ve shown in another recent column (see the literature references provided therein), a more accurate recognition of methane’s comparatively short atmospheric life – and consequent short-term warming potential – means effective Canadian agricultural emissions may be as low as 4% of the Canadian total.

Finally, none of the above recognizes the carbon (and photosynthetically fixed CO2) contained in products that leave Canadian farms including those exported internationally.

This is of more than academic interest: considerations of what’s included and what’s not make huge differences in the effectiveness of various proposed/recommended strategies for reducing reportable GHG emissions for agriculture.

Why agriculture will get no credit for many actions taken to reduce agriculturally linked GHG emissions

Let’s now consider some examples, beginning with a well-documented plan published in 2019 by the National Farmers Union (NFU) in England. It’s called Achieving NET ZERO, Farming’s 2040 Goal and is available here. Ignoring the question of whether the proposed measures are likely to be implemented or even implementable by 2040 (beyond the scope of this column), a key question is whether, even if achieved, the result would be any improvement in agricultural sum to be reported in the UK 2040 NIR to UNFCCC.  I believe the answer is “mostly not.”

The NFU plan does include reductions in both methane and N2O, the result of new technologies and improved management for animal feeding, manure and fertilizer N application. These would affect the agricultural total. But a large portion of the measures proposed by NFU England involve carbon sequestration – C sequestration in soil, C sequestration in fence row shrubs and trees, and biomass conversion into biofuels with the CO2 emissions produced during biofuel manufacture captured and stored underground using mostly-still-to-be-developed Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) techniques.

With present IPCC calculation protocols, the C to be sequestered by soil and vegetation would be credited to LULUCF and not agriculture. In addition, the C captured by biofuels and CCS would be credited to the energy/transportation sector. The same applies for reduced energy/fuel usage for farm operations like tillage/no-tillage, heating and crop drying.

Official recognition of these agricultural sources and sinks for GHG emission seems essential as world agriculture strives to reduce net GHG emissions from all farm sources – and to have these contributions credited to agriculture.

Calculations involving the carbon content in agricultural products that leave the farm are more complex. I give credit to Fraser McPhee, a Manitoba farmer (no web site but his Twitter address is @FarmerFrase), for publicizing this issue within the Canadian agricultural community. If the carbon contained in farm products were to be included as a credit in agricultural GHG calculations, agriculture would be a major net sink rather than source for greenhouse gases. Per Frankelius has made the same point in a recent peer-reviewed article, A Proposal To Rethink Agriculture In The Climate Calculations.

To illustrate the significance:  Canada produces about 60 million tonnes annually of grain crops alone (oilseed crops and other farm products not included); if it’s assumed the grain is 42% carbon and 14% moisture, this equates to about 80 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, or more than all emission sums shown in Table 1.

IPCC’s rationale for not doing this includes the fact that the carbon stored in most agricultural products is only fixed temporarily and is returned to the atmosphere as CO2 via respiration or combustion within a few weeks or months. If agriculture were to be given a credit for this, there would need to be a corresponding national offset for CO2 emissions by food processors and consumers. That’s not impossible: the United States in its NIR includes a category called ‘Residential’ in allocating CO2 emissions from fossil fuel consumption. But it adds complexity.

As Fraser McPhee has noted, an equivalent calculation is now done for fertilizer where the CO2 added to ammonium to make urea is classed as a CO2 sink for fertilizer manufacturing and as a CO2 source for agriculture when the urea breaks down in soil to CO2 and ammonium.

A similar reallocation occurs with biofuels, as noted earlier.

An exemption to the need to calculate emissions associated with Canadian food consumption could occur more easily with agri-food exports – presumably a net calculation after accounting for imports.

One can understand why the IPCC opted for the protocols now used. They are simpler. And since the UNFCCC goal is an overall reduction in net global GHG emissions (or, more properly, the global warming caused by those emissions) – and with corrective actions to be taken at the national level – it matters not to the national total whether agri-food emissions show up as ‘agriculture,’ or ‘energy,’ or ‘consumer consumption’ or whatever. Hence, the approach now used.

However, it does have a critical effect in other ways.

Why this has negative implications for agriculture and future food supply

The first of these involves finger-pointing which is important when government policy is set so much by public opinion.

“Who is to blame for big emission numbers?”

Agriculture is already a popular target for journalists and advocacy groups.

Second, it matters in considering the relative merits of different options for improvement. If ‘agricultural’ money spent on reduced farm fuel consumption means credits to the energy sector but not agriculture, will there not be a greater incentive in agriculture to focus on other measures that directly affect the reported agricultural sum?

The third reason involves the direct implications to decisions about farm productivity and Canadian food supply.

Consider, for example, a case where increased N fertilizer usage results in greater N2O emissions but also more photosynthesis and more soil carbon sequestration. With the present system, increased N2O emissions increase reported agricultural GHG emissions, while the increased C sequestration shows up as LULUCF rather than agriculture in the annual report.

Another example: Low-input-low-output agricultural advocates, including some in the organic industry (example here), have emphasized how agricultural GHG emissions can be reduced by reducing/eliminating usage of inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. And they are right; with present calculation protocols, agricultural output and food supply are not considered, only inputs. Organic agriculture generally means fewer GHG emissions per hectare of farmland, but not per unit of production. A good review article is here (even if it, unfortunately, ignores the forest and grassland that would need to be converted to farming to produce food if organic technology were to be adopted on large-scale globally).

Indeed, the most effective way to reduce agricultural GHG emissions is to go beyond ‘low-input-low-output agriculture – to ‘no-input-no-output’ agriculture. To a nation choosing this option, it would mean importing all food, but it would also mean eliminating all agricultural GHG emissions in that country’s annual reporting to UNFCCC.

Realistically, any global strategy for agriculture and GHG emissions must include the need to produce more food for a world human population soon to be 10 billion people, even if a narrow interpretation of UNFCCC/IPCC/NIR numbers and some organic advocates recommend the reverse.

Because of this flaw, some analysts prefer to present agricultural GHG statistics on a per-unit of output basis – eg, amount of CO2e per tonne of grain, litre of milk, or kg of meat. An example is here. However, if, despite the improved efficiency, the result is still increasing GHG emissions for this sector of agriculture, then that does not adequately address the global need to reduce total GHG emissions – including those from farming.

So what’s the conclusion from all of the above – other than the obvious one, “It’s complicated”? 

I would personally like to see a supplementary addition to the annual national reporting protocol for agriculture, at least for Canada, to include all annual GHG-linked input usage (eg., fuel, energy, fertilizer, pesticides), also including a credit for reduced GHG emissions permitted by biofuel usage. A further improvement would include a credit for the CO2e in farm-gate exports. Perhaps a simple illustrative calculation and publication of this statistic would suffice – to illustrate that, unlike for all other Canadian economic sectors except forestry, agriculture represents a net sink for greenhouse gases.

And we need to expose low-input-low-output agricultural systems for what they are: a strategy to replace one challenge for agriculture – GHG emissions – with an even greater problem for society – how to produce enough food to feed the 840 million or more people who are already food deprived, and the several billion more humans to be added in coming decades. For more detail, read here.

Improved Method for Calculating Methane Effects on Global Warming Means Huge Differences in Canadian and Canadian Agricultural GHG Emissions and Trends

Photo courtesy of Dr. Vernon Baron, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lacombe Alberta

In a recent column, I summarized recent data from the 2020 Canadian submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The  data show Canadian and Canadian agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for 2018, expressed in carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalents, are essentially unchanged from 2005. Year 2005 is the base year for reduction commitments made under the United Nation’s ‘Paris Accord.’

This newer column, based on improved calculation methodology, shows that a more accurate consideration of the relatively short atmospheric life of methane means both Canadian and Canadian agricultural emissions, measured as CO2-equivalent global warming potential (GWP), have actually plummeted since 2005. This should have major significance for future policy setting. The explanation follows.

First, a quick review of the earlier article, highlights of which are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1: Canadian and Canadian agricultural GHG emissions including credits and debits for LULUCF, on-farm fuel usage and Canadian biofuel consumption.

 200520182018/2005% of Cdn total
Mt CO2 equivalent%(2018)
Total Canadian gross emissions730729100100
LULUCF (sinks), Canadian total-13-13100 
Canadian net emissions including LULUCF717716100 
 Ruminant digestion, CH43124 
 Manure management, CH4 and N2O98 
 N2O from soil fertilizing, management1925 
 Agriculture total, reported to UNFCCC6059988.1
 Agricultural LULUCF (sinks)-10-6 
 Agricultural net including LULUCF50531067.4
 Add biofuel credit-1-6 
 Add on-farm fossil fuel usage1214 
 Agriculture total, biofuel and farm fuel included  61611008.5

The table presents statistics on Canadian GHG emissions for the years 2005 and 2018, with 2018 representing the most recent year for which official data are available. The values are expressed as ‘CO2 equivalents’ as defined by UNFCCC, recognizing that some GHG have a far greater climatic warming effect than CO2. The conversion factors used by UNFCCC for submissions for year 2018 are x25 for methane (CH4) and x298 for nitrous oxide (N2O). These values are their calculated average warming effects compared to CO2 over the 100-year period following emission. Note that the conversion factor for methane has recently been restated as x28, and even higher in recent publications from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but I’ll use x25 here as that’s the value used in the reports to UNFCCC.

Reports to UNFCCC also include emissions associated with storage or release of carbon dioxide from forests and soils – commonly referred to as either carbon sinks (presented as negative values) or sources (positive values). This overall category is called Land Use, Land Use Changes and Forestry, or LULUCF for short. Table 1 shows Canadian GHG emissions, either gross, or net after including LULUCF amounts.

Table 1 shows GHG emissions reported  to UNFCCC for Canadian agriculture. These values mostly involve GHG emissions associated with animal agriculture and various soil amendments (mostly manure, fertilizer and lime). The table also shows LULUCF changes that are the result of changing farm soil management practices and shifts of land into and out of agricultural crop production. Agricultural GHG emissions reported to UNFCCC consist primarily of CH4 and N2O, along with some CO2. The data for agriculture reported to UNFCCC do not include CO2 released in fossil fuel consumption for agricultural operations nor the reduction in Canadian CO2 emissions associated with biofuels. However, data are provided elsewhere in the submission to UNFCCC that permit these values to be calculated. I’ve done this in the final three lines of Table 1.

Table 1 permits two general conclusions:

  • Canadian and Canadian agricultural GHG emissions, whether including LULUCF or not, changed hardly at all from 2005 to 2018.
  • There was a shift In Canadian agriculture to more emissions from N2O and less from CH4 over this 13-year interval, but the sum of all agricultural emissions remained at about 8% of total Canadian emissions.

In recent years, there has been intensive debate on whether the UNFCCC reporting methodology, based on protocols prescribed by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), provides an accurate estimate of expected global warming for emissions of certain GHG, especially methane.

Methane has a comparatively short life span in the atmosphere before being converted into CO2 and water. With a half-life of about 12 years, only about 1/16 of an originally emitted amount of CH4 will remain in atmosphere after 50 years; yet the IPCC calculation assumes continued presence for another 50 years to follow. Of course, the offset is that methane has an atmospheric warming potential of about x84 for the initial few years – that’s how the 100-year average of x25 arises – and that must be accounted for in calculations too.

With continuing CH4 emissions of constant magnitude, the atmospheric concentration will level off after a number of decades as rate of decomposition proceeds as quickly as rate of addition. And if the rate of CH4 emission declines, the atmospheric warming potential declines within a relatively few years as well – notwithstanding the current UNFCCC protocol that assumes otherwise.

It’s true that most other GHG also dissipate in the atmospheric with time, but at a far slower rate than methane. In the case of CO2, dissipation occurs because of photosynthesis-less-respiration, net storage of CO2 in carbon sinks, and absorption by oceans. This takes many decades and even centuries. The atmospheric half-life for N2O is more than 100 years.

There are numerous recent publications that describe this subject more completely. In particular, I refer readers to this recent overview by Dr. Frank Mitloehner and his colleagues at the University of California-Davis.

More detail is provide in a series of publications by Drs. Michelle Cain, John Lynch, Myles Allen and colleagues at the University of Oxford. A brief overview is here; a more-detailed but very readable report is here; the full scientific/statistical analysis is here.

The Oxford University team has created a measure called the GWP* (GWP-star, also called CO2 warming equivalent, or CO2we) which is a more accurate estimate of the Global Warming Potential of methane over a 100-year interval.  The calculation involves two components, the first reflecting the large but short-term, initial warming effect, and a smaller second term that is the longer-term effect. GWP* is calculated as follows:

GWP* (CO2we ) = ((r x ΔCH4/Δt x 100 years) + s x CH4)  x CO2100,

where, CO2we = ‘warming equivalent’ compared to CO2;  r and s are two constants derived statistically, with r + s = 1.00; ΔCH4 = change in annual methane emissions; Δt = number of years over which this change occurred; CH4 = methane emissions in current year; CO2100 = 100-year CO2-equivalent conversion factor for methane as defined by IPCC (i.e., 25).

While the Δt interval can be any number of years in this equation, the Oxford team has recommended 20 years as most appropriate and have calculated r and s values of 0.25 and 0.75 for the 20-year duration.

In Table 2, I have recalculated the principal values in Table 1, replacing the originally x25-transformed values for methane with GWP*.

Table 2: Canadian and Canadian agricultural GHG using GWP* for methane emissions.

 200520182018/2005% of Cdn total
Mt CO2 equivalent%(2018)
Total Canadian gross emissions70359284100
LULUCF (sinks), Canadian total-13-13 
Canadian net emissions including LULUCF69357984 
 Agriculture gross6429454.9
 Agricultural LULUCF (sinks)-10-6 
 Agricultural net including LULUCF5423434.0
 Add biofuel credit-1-6 
 Add on-farm fossil fuel usage1214 
 Agriculture total, biofuel and farm fuel included  6631475.4

The base data on Canadian and Canadian agricultural emissions of methane come from annual National Inventory Reports to UNFCCC by Canada for the years 1990 through 2018 (see following graph).

A few explanations are needed regarding calculations used to create Table 2:

  • GWP* calculations require data on annual methane release for the current year and that 20 years earlier. This presents a problem for 2005 calculations in that Canadian UNFCCC data are only available for years 1990 to 2018. For agriculture, a close linear relationship exists for those years between annual methane emissions reported to UNFCCC and total Canadian cattle numbers published by Statistics Canada. Hence, I was able to estimate Canadian agricultural methane emissions using the cattle number for 1985. (The number for 1985 is about 5% higher than for 1990.) Unfortunately, I was not able to find something comparable for total methane emissions for Canada, so I assumed the 1985 number to be the same as for 1990. That may represent an over-estimate for 1985 (Canadian methane emissions trended upward from 1990 to 1995) and, hence, an underestimate in the true change in Canadian methane emissions that occurred from 1985 to 2005.
  • The LULUCF emissions include a small emission of methane. However, it is generally less than 1% of the equivalent value for Agriculture, and too small to be of meaningful significance. I ignored LULUCF-GWP* values in producing Table 2.
  • There are three dominant sources of methane emissions in Canada – losses associated with natural gas, methane from waste management, and ruminant animals. The Canadian ruminant animal source (primarily cattle) increased from 1987 to 2005 but has steadily declined since then. Total Canadian methane emissions increased until the year 2000 and have declined since then (down by 18% from 2000 to 2018). Because of this, calculated values for GWP* for 2018 for methane are actually negative for both Canada and Canadian agriculture.

Negative values for GWP* when methane emissions are declining is fully consistent with the GWP* concept as shown in the following series of graphs from Dr. Cain of the Oxford team:

When methane emissions are increasing with time, the global warming effect of methane also increases. When the methane emission rate is constant, the global warming effect is static (unlike CO2 where continued CO2 accumulation means increased warming). But when methane emission rate declines – as for both Canada and Canadian agriculture after 2005 – the warming effect of methane declines. And that’s what’s evident in Table 2.

Some key conclusions from Table 2 are:

  • The global warming potential (GWP) of Canadian GHG emissions has declined by about 20% since 2005 when the warming effect of methane emissions is calculated more accurately.
  • The calculated GHG global warming potential for Canadian agricultural emissions has declined by more than 50% since 2005.
  • Canadian agriculture (2018) represents only about 5% of total Canadian GHG global warming potential.
  • The decline in methane emissions since the early 2000s actually means a cooling effect. Even if Canadian cattle numbers change little in the next few years, the cooling effect caused by reductions in ruminant methane emissions since 2005 will continue – for about another 14 years according to my calculation using the Oxford equation.

I also did a calculation of what the difference would be over the interval 2019 to 2050 if Canadian agricultural emissions were to remain the same every year as in 2018. I calculated, using the Oxford equation, that use of GWP* for converting methane emissions into CO2we over that 32-year interval would mean a 45% reduction in total accumulated atmospheric warming potential for GHG emissions from Canadian agriculture – compared to that calculated using x25 .

One caution: Readers should treat the numbers shown in Table 2 as approximations only. I have no idea of the size of the error of estimate. But even if the results are only rough approximations, this calculation procedure, based on sound science, does represent a major improvement over the calculation procedure for methane now used for UNFCCC submissions, and the trends shown in Table 2 seem very significant.

How the global warming effect of methane is calculated should mean a huge difference in strategic planning on how to reduce GHG emissions in Canadian agriculture – especially options pertaining to ruminant agriculture.

This then begs an obvious question: How long before UNFCCC calculation protocol is altered to include this (or a comparable) computation of the short and long-term warming effect of methane? This author can offer no informed opinion but rather the observation that 1) given the complexity of UNFCCC/IPCC processes and 2) negative attitudes towards animal, especially ruminant-animal agriculture within various UN agencies (see this tweet as an example), changes along the line supported by the research at Oxford University may be very difficult to achieve.

I express deepest appreciation to Dr. Vernon Baron, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Lacombe Alberta; Dr. Frank Mitloehner, University of California, Davis California; Dr. Raymond Desjardin, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ottawa; and Dr. John Lynch, University of Oxford, England for professional advice and input used in making the calculations described above. However, they bear no blame for inadvertent errors present in the resulting product.

How Well are Canada and Canadian Agriculture Doing in Reducing Net GHG Emissions – In Comparison with International Commitments and Other Countries?

2020-08-07 15_24_54-Window

The world, unfortunately, is full of distorted information about climate change and the value and effectiveness of corrective actions being undertaken in response. The confusion includes reports on how well Canada and Canadian agriculture are doing relative to international commitments, and compared to other countries.

This article provides a summary of what I’ve learned in reviewing data that Canada and other developed nations submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in April 2020. The data are for the year 2018 and previous years going back to 1990.

I’ve written this article for the benefit of those with interests in agriculture, climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but who lack the time to review the topic in any detail. I’ve tried my best to write without any praise or condemnations in providing a layman’s summary of what the data say. At the end, I’ll provide links to more extensive information.

My conclusions can be summarized in a few bullet-points. However, please read the whole article to understand the basis for the statements, including supporting data.

  1. As of 2018, Canada had made essentially no progress in meeting its Paris Accord commitment for a 30% reduction in GHG emissions over the interval 2005 to 2030. Indeed, it has generally fared less well than other developed countries for which I’ve checked the data, including the United States.
  2. There was essentially no change in net GHG emissions from Canadian agriculture over the period 2005 to 2018, at least with the reporting protocol used by UNFCCC. That conclusion holds whether carbon sequestration in agricultural soils is included or not. However, Canada appears to be no different in this regard than other developed countries.
  3. The UNFCCC reporting section for agriculture is dominated by emissions associated with livestock agriculture (ruminant methane and manure storage) and the application of nitrogen fertilizers, lime and other amendments to soil. These emissions are mostly methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). To these gross emission numbers reported in the Agriculture section of national reports to UNFCCC, one can add net emissions (positive or negative, and mostly CO2) from cropland soils. The latter are summarized in another section of the National Inventory Reports called Land Use, Land-Use Changes and Forestry (LULUCF).
  4. Unfortunately, the summation exercise is more difficult for data on emissions caused by on-farm fossil energy combustion and the reduction in national GHG emissions caused by use of biofuels made from agricultural feedstocks. I’ve done this calculation for Canada but it proved to be essentially impossible for me to do this in a consistent way for other countries. The inclusion of fossil fuel usage increases the calculated GHG emissions for agriculture in Canada. However, inclusion of biofuel data means about a 10% decrease in 2018 Canadian agricultural net emissions. That percentage increased substantially after 2005. When you add all numbers together – reported ‘agricultural’ emissions, LULUCF for cropland, farm fossil fuel usage and biofuels – the resulting sum for Canadian agriculture is identical for 2005 and 2018.
  5. The UNFCCC reporting protocol has been heavily criticized by agricultural scientists and others for two major reasons: i) lack of recognition of the fact that methane has a much shorter existence (half-life) in atmosphere than other major GHG, and ii) the accounting does not recognize the carbon stored in food and other agricultural products. Both of these will affect any analysis of the effect of changes in agricultural practices on climate change. However, unless or until the calculation protocol is changed, agriculture will likely be judged in most GHG discussions on the data now reported to UNFCCC.

Canada was one of the countries that created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992 with attendant commitments to provide an annual accounting of national human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Canada has been a party to international agreements made since then to reduce net emissions by certain percentages by specified dates. Although the Government of Canada renounced its initial commitment for reductions under the Kyoto Protocol, it is part of the more recent Paris Accord, committing Canada and other countries to reduce net emissions by 30% by year 2030 compared to base year 2005. Details on the Canadian commitment are here.

Fossil hydrocarbon combustion is recognized universally as the dominant source of anthropogenic (human-made) GHG emissions. However, agriculture is also a significant GHG source globally, according to data submitted to UNFCCC using reporting protocols specified by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Agriculture has come under intense criticism at times because of this fact.

Claims about agricultural contributions have been often exaggerated by those who oppose the inherent structure of modern agriculture – and are eager to use GHG emissions to further their individual causes. Agricultural organizations, in turn, have emphasized the critical need for food production in sufficient quantities and at an affordable cost of production to feed a world population approaching 10 billion people. Proponents of various types of agriculture have been eager to show (often using carefully selected data, and often in disagreement with each other) that their type of agriculture is superior to others from a GHG-emission perspective.

In April 2020, the Government of Canada, like many other countries, submitted its annual National Inventory Report (NIR) on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and sinks to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC). These reports are for emissions in calendar year 2018 and can be accessed here. Scroll down to the specific country, then click on “NIR.” More basic data for each country are available in Excel spread-sheet format, labelled “CRF,” at the same site.

I posted a Twitter thread soon after the April release, summarizing a few highlights with a focus on Canadian agriculture, while promising a more detailed analysis to follow. Hence this article.

First a quick explanation: The UNFCCC reporting protocol is designed for simplicity in reporting (not that it’s very simple) and, for the most part, does not provide comprehensive summarization by economic or cultural sectors. That can cause confusion, as discussed below. The Government of Canada does provide a modest economic sectoral summation in its report though, in the case of agriculture, the Canadian summary actually adds confusion.

I’ve provided my own summations below.

Remember that the reports to UNFCCC only go to the end of 2018, well before COVID- linked effects of 2020 were evident.

Canadian achievements in reducing new GHG emissions compared to Paris Accord commitments

A summary of total Canadian gross emissions is shown in Table ES-1 (copied below from the Canadian National Inventory Report, NIR). Values are expressed in Mt (million tonnes) of CO2 equivalent, recognizing that other greenhouse gases have different atmospheric heating effects compared to carbon dioxide (CO2). As the table shows, by 2018, about half way through the 2005-2030 timeframe, Canada had made virtually no progress towards meeting its Paris Accord commitment. A 3% reduction occurred from 2005 to 2016, but during the last two reporting years, that trend was reversed.

Blog GHG column Aug 2020 ES-1Without going into details that lie beyond the intended scope of this article, decreases in the energy used to produce electricity in Canada since 2005 have been countered by increases in energy used for road transportation and for oil and gas extraction – with most other GHG-producing sectors showing little change over the 13-year interval.

Authors of the Canadian NIR attempt to counter the weak Canadian record by emphasizing a reduction in GHG emissions relative to GDP (see table above and graph ES-1 below). But the Paris Accord is about absolute reductions, not reductions compared to GDP.

Blog GHG Aug 2020 ES-1 Fig

Neither the table nor graph shown above include values for a category called, Land Use, Land Use Changes and Forestry (LULUCF), which is essentially net CO2 conversion into soil organic matter and tree biomass. More on that below. However, the inclusion of LULUCF values in Table ES-1 would not change the overall conclusion; the LULUCF for Canada was only -13 Mt of CO2 equivalent (a net sink) in both 2005 and 2018.

Although Canada made no progress in meeting its Paris Accord commitments by 2018, the Government of Canada says it has a plan to meet the full 30% reduction (i.e. from 730 Mt CO2 equivalent in 2005 down to 511 Mt) by 2030. The plan is included in this December 2019 report to UNFCCC and key values are graphed below. In the graph, “2019 Reference Case” refers to measures the government says are well advanced, and “2019 Additional Measures” means ones in in various stages of development or consideration. Interestingly, the Government of Canada appears to include LULUCF offsets in its anticipated target for 2030, but not in the base value for 2005.

The conclusion from Figure 5.2 (below) seems clear. The Canadian ‘plan’ for reductions by 2030 is for a total reduction of only 19% (18% if you include LULUCF in both 2050 and 2030). A recent pledge by the Canadian Prime Minister that Canada will achieve 100% reduction by 2050 seems, at this stage, to be only a pipe-dream.

Blog GHG Aug 2020 5-2

Canadian Agriculture

For Canadian agriculture, NIR Table S-1 shows that total emissions increased prior to 2005 but have been essentially stable in years since. Note that the GHG values shown in Table S-1 are in thousands of tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Most of the agricultural emissions reported in NIR are in the form of CH4 from ruminant livestock, CH4 and N2O from manure management, and N2O release from soil with organic and synthetic fertilizer nitrogen application and from organic matter decomposition in the field. There is a moderate amount of CO2 released from the application of lime and urea to farm soils.

Blog GHG Aug 2020 5-1

The table for agriculture shown above does not include any credit for CO2 sequestration stored as soil organic matter (data are reported separately in the LULUCF chapter of the NIR), nor of CO2 emissions from on-farm fossil fuel combustion. Nor does it include any credit to agriculture for the use of biofuels made from agricultural feedstocks. Also missing are CO2 emissions caused by crop input manufacture (eg., N fertilizers).

Because of that, I have used data appearing elsewhere in the NIR report to make my own summations.

First, let’s look at NIR statistics on LULUCF (carbon sequestration) linked to agriculture. Table 6-1, shown below, is more complex than needed for my purpose as it shows all LULUCF values for Canada including the largest one, forestry. Note that conversion of CO2 into sinks means negative values, and soil/forest organic matter conversion to CO2 means positive values. The main values in the table relevant to Canadian agriculture are those for cropland; there are three sets of numbers – one for forest and grassland converted into cropland, one for cropland conversion to forest, and one for changes in management practices for cropland that remains cropland.

Blog GHG Aug 2020 6-1

More details on the changes in cropland management practices as they affect C sequestration in cropland soils are shown in Table 6-9.

Blog GHG Aug 2020 6-9

GHG sink credits are reported for converting cropland from annual crop production into perennials (and the reverse for perennials to annual crops), for adopting reduced/no tillage, and for cropland conversion from summer fallow. The assumed annual sink credit from conversion to perennial crops and reduced/no tillage diminishes gradually from a maximum value to zero over a number of years.

Histosols are organic soils.

The size of the annual agricultural soil sink for CO2 increased during the 15 years prior to 2005, to -11 Mt CO2, but this trend has reversed in years since – mainly because of conversion of perennial crop hectares into annual crop production. The LULUCF for Canadian agriculture in 2018 was -6.5 Mt CO2 (from Table 6-1).

The UNFCCC NIR protocol does not require countries to include, in their reporting, CO2 emissions associated with the sustainable use of biofuels, which Canada has assumed to mean all fuel ethanol and biodiesel used in transportation. The stats for biofuel consumption are reported in millions of litres in the following two NIR tables. Although the NIR does not show the equivalent CO2 values, it does list the conversion factors needed to make the calculations. I’ve shown the result of those calculations in the third table below.

Blog GHG Aug 2020 3-17

Blog GHG Aug 2020 3-18

Canadian Biofuel Consumption 2005 2018
Mt CO2 equivalent
Ethanol 0.4 3.9
Bio-diesel 0.0 2.2
Sum 0.4 6.1

The 6.1 Mt CO2 shown above for Canada in 2018 is effectively a credit to the energy sector in that CO2 emissions from biofuel combustion are not included in UNFCCC GHG sums for Canada. If this was an agricultural credit, it would reduce net agricultural emissions by about 10% (see calculations below).

On the subject of fuels, the NIR does not directly show statistics for on-fuel fossil fuel usage in agriculture, but the numbers can be calculated from values in other tables. On-farm fossil fuel usage declined from 15 Mt CO2 equivalent in 2005 to 14 Mt in 2018.

As for the manufacturing of inputs used in agriculture, this calculation is both very difficult and speculative, based on various assumptions and limited data, and the result is not likely to change the overall pattern of change in Canadian agricultural GHG emissions between 2005 and 2018 or by 2030. Also, these calculations are not required in UNFCCC reporting protocols.

One quantity of interest might be GHG emissions with the manufacture of ammonia to make farm fertilizers. Unfortunately, the NIR does not provide statistics on the portion of Canadian ammonia production used for fertilizer manufacture, but does note that most of the CO2 released in making ammonia is reabsorbed during the subsequent manufacture of urea.  Hence, I’ve not included an estimate of GHG balances associated with fertilizer manufacture. Even if included, it would be highly unlikely to have affected the pattern of annual changes reported after 2005.

So, by using the numbers sourced or calculated above, I’ve made a summary of all identified emissions and sinks for Canadian agriculture, for years 2005 and 2018. See the following table, with all values rounded to the closest Mt of CO2 equivalent.

Table 1: Canadian agricultural GHG emissions including credits and debits for LULUCF, on-farm fuel usage and Canadian biofuel consumption.

2005 2018 2018/2005 % of Cdn total
Mt CO2 equivalent % (2018)
Total Canadian gross emissions 730 729 100 100
LULUCF (sinks), Canadian total -13 -13 100
Canadian total, gross emissions plus LULUCF 717 716 100
Ruminant digestion, CH4 31 24
Manure management, CH4 and N2O 9 8
N2O from soil fertilizing, management 19 25
Other 1 3
Agriculture total, reported to UNFCCC 60 59 98 8.1
Add LULUCF credit -10 -6
Agricultural total with LULUCF added 50 53 106 7.4
Add biofuel credit -1 -6
Add on-farm fossil fuel usage 12 14
Total, biofuel and farm fuel included 61 61 100 8.5

(Note that agricultural values for 2005 in Table 1 have been corrected from the erroneous ones shown in an earlier version of this blog.)

When all the add-ons and credits are included, the pattern is about the same as that reported by Canada to UNFCCC in April 2020. Agriculture represents about 8 percent of Canadian GHG emissions (gross or net) – a percentage that has not changed much since 2005. Increases in emissions are mostly owing to increased use of nitrogen fertilizer and fewer perennial crop hectares. The biggest decline since 2005 involves methane emitted by beef cattle. (Perhaps that’s also why perennial crop hectares declined.)

To my knowledge, the Canadian NIR contains no tables showing these sums, even including the addition of LULUCF agricultural credits from agricultural emissions. However, there is one exception: the Canadian NIR contains a prominent table in the Executive Summary called GHG Emissions Economic by Sector, where it adds on-farm fossil fuel usage to the agricultural total reported to UNFCCC, but with none of the credits included. That table is shown below. This has the effect of increasing Canadian agricultural contribution to 10% of the Canadian total, versus 8.5% if credits are included too.Blog GHG Aug 2020 ES-3

I have no idea why Environment and Climate Change Canada, which prepares the Canadian submissions, did this. It was not required by UNFCCC, and I don’t see it in NIRs from other countries.

How Canadian figures compare to those for other countries.

One way to put the Canadian numbers in perspective is to compare them with those from other countries. I’ve completed the following table using CRF (Common Reporting Framework) data (source here) reported by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, The Netherlands, Sweden and Australia.

I would have loved to include comparisons with Brazil, India and China, as three lesser-developed countries with large agriculture, but the data are not available from this UNFCCC source.

(For those wanting to know specifics, I’ve used the CRF Tables 4, 4A, 4B, 4C and Summary1.As2 for years 2005 and 2018 as the sources of data. These tables are quite consistent in format across countries though there are differences in the manner and extent to which CH4 and N2O emissions from agricultural soils are included in calculating LULUCF balances. Also, because of differences in the extent to which different countries consider grasslands as agriculture, I’ve restricted my accounting to cropland in the CRF tables.)

I found it impossible to find equivalent data for most countries on fuel usage in agriculture or offsets from biofuels/bioenergy so those comparisons are not provided.

Negative LULUCF sums denote net sinks; positive LULUCF values denote net sources.

Table 2: Comparisons from several developed countries of gross and net agricultural GHG emissions.

Country 2005 2018 2018/


Canada Mt CO2 equivalent %
National gross GHG emissions 730 729 100
National LULUCF -13 -13
National emissions plus LULUCF 717 716 100
Agriculture gross emissions (% national) 60 (8.2) 59 (8.1) 104
Agricultural LULUCF -10 -6
Agriculture plus LULUCF (% national) 50 (7.0) 53 (7.4) 106
USA National gross GHG emissions 7390 6680 90
National LULUCF -815 -774
National emissions plus LULUCF 6580 5900 90
Agriculture gross emissions (% national) 576 (7.8) 618 (9.3) 107
Agricultural LULUCF -43 -24
Agriculture plus LULUCF (% national) 533 (8.1) 594 (10.1) 111
UK National gross GHG emissions 688 456 66
National LULUCF 7 10
National emissions plus LULUCF 695 466 67
Agriculture gross emissions (% national) 44 (6.4) 41 (9.0) 93
Agricultural LULUCF 9 7
Agriculture plus LULUCF (% national) 53 (7.6) 48 (10.3) 91
France National gross GHG emissions 555 445 80
National LULUCF -45 -26
National emissions plus LULUCF 510 419 82
Agriculture gross emissions (% national) 77 (13.9) 75 (16.9) 97
Agricultural LULUCF 21 20
Agriculture plus LULUCF (% national) 98 (19.2) 95 (22.7) 97
Netherlands National gross GHG emissions 215 188 87
National LULUCF 6 5
National emissions plus LULUCF 221 193 87
Agriculture gross emissions (% national) 18.4 (8.6) 18.2 (9.7) 99
Agricultural LULUCF 1.7 1.6
Agriculture plus LULUCF (% national) 20.1 (9.1) 19.8 (10.3) 99
Sweden National gross GHG emissions 63 52 83
National LULUCF -34 -42
National emissions plus LULUCF 29 10 34
Agriculture gross emissions (% national) 7.0(11.1) 6.8 (13.1) 97
Agricultural LULUCF 3.9 3.8
Agriculture plus LULUCF (% national) 10.9 (37.6) 10.6 (106) 97
Australia National gross GHG emissions 526 588 112
National LULUCF 91 -21
National  emissions plus LULUCF 617 567 95
Agriculture gross emissions (% national) 80 (15.2) 76 (12.9) 95
Agricultural LULUCF 7 -2
Agriculture plus LULUCF (% national) 87 (14.1) 74 (13.1) 85

Some conclusions:

  • In contrast to Canada, the other selected countries have generally achieved notable reductions in national GHG emissions since 2005, either with or without the inclusion of LULUCF data (true for Australia only with LULUCF included).
  • In general, agriculture represents about 7-15% of total national GHG emission, including or not including LULUCF data. Two exceptions are France, where the agricultural percentages are higher, and Sweden, where national calculations with LULUCF included are dominated by a huge national C sequestration in forests.
  • With the exception of the United Kingdom and Australia, GHG emissions from agriculture have not declined since 2005. This applies whether LULUCF data are included or not. (The UK numbers reflect a significant reduction in numbers of ruminant animals.)
  • As a percent of national GHG emissions, the agricultural portion increased in every country except Australia between 2005 and 2018.
  • In the European countries included in this small survey, agricultural soils are a net source rather than sink for carbon dioxide. This stands in contrast to a stated objectives in some countries – notably France – to increase the national carbon content in soils by 4 per 1000 per year (reference here) as part of GHG reduction strategies.

Further Plans

My next goal is to examine various plans that have been developed by governments, farm groups and others to reduce net emissions from agriculture. I also want to look at the extent to which IPCC calculation procedures for methane, and lack of consideration for the carbon content in agricultural products, affect calculations of agricultural net emission calculations. I expect the effects of both to be substantial.

But those reports will await another blog.


Source of National Inventory Reports (NIR) and Common Reporting Format (CRF) data on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Sources and Sinks, submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). 2020. https://unfccc.int/ghg-inventories-annex-i-parties/2020

Canada’s Fourth Biennial Report on Climate Change. 2019. https://www4.unfccc.int/sites/SubmissionsStaging/NationalReports/Documents/1687459_Canada-BR4-1-Canada%E2%80%99s%20Fourth%20Biennial%20Report%20on%20Climate%20Change%202019.pdf

Column updated August 30, 2020.


A Brief Guide to Mennonites and Amish – especially Old Order – in Ontario

St Jacobs Mennonite photo

Photo credit: The Mennonite Story, St. Jacobs, Ontario (https://stjacobs.com/Culture-Heritage-The-Mennonite-Story.htm)

(Updated September 2022)

For 50 years, my wife and I have lived in what was historically known as the Paisley Block of Guelph (now Guelph/Eramosa) Township with its Scottish roots. But less than one kilometer away lies Waterloo Region (formerly Waterloo County) with its equally strong German-speaking origins. Those pioneers included a large number of Mennonites.
The many Mennonite farmers and other agricultural folk in Waterloo with whom I’m connected are all fully modern. But less than 12 minutes from home are Old Order Mennonites. And not much further away live Old Order Amish and members of several other Anabaptist (adult baptism) groups.
I’ve realized that after 50 years of living so close, that I know remarkably little about any of them.
So a ‘Covid project’ for me has been to learn more about my neighbours. This column represents my attempt to condense several hundred pages of reading and many conversations into a 30 minute summary. It’s written for outsiders like me who would like to know more about the Ontario Mennonites and Amish – who they are and from where they came – but don’t have time for hours of research. At the end of the column, I’ll provide web links to sites where more detailed information can be found.
An introductory caution: This subject is not simple. There are over 30 different groups of Mennonites and Amish in Ontario and they vary quite substantially, from thoroughly modern to very conservative. The route by which those differences arose is equally complex.
In this column, I am going to focus more on conservative groups, but their story cannot be told without including the others. Despite my best efforts to stick to basics, the column is still more than 10,000 words long. To improve readability, I’ve divided it into sections, and some readers may wish to skip just to the second last one – Mennonite and Amish Communities in Ontario Today. However, I’d encourage you to read the full story.
A special thank you to Mr. Samuel Steiner, Kitchener, Ontario, who is my source for the majority of the information provided below. More on that later.
1. Mennonite and Amish Origins
2. Mennonites and Amish Immigration to Canada
3. Challenges for Mennonites and Amish caused by Pacifism and Pietism
4. Major Splits among both Mennonites and Amish
5. Russian Mennonites, David Martin Mennonites and World War I
6. Clothing Attire Becomes Distinct
7. More Russian Mennonite Immigration in 1920s, Formation of Markham-Waterloo Mennonites
8. World War II, Russian Mennonite Immigration after World War II , Plymouth Brethren and Orthodox Mennonites
9. Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico, Recent Amish Immigration into Ontario from the United States
10. Creation of Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, One-Room Schools, Public Service
11. Mennonite and Amish Communities in Ontario Today
12. Final Comments, Acknowledgements References, Further Information

Mennonite and Amish Origins

First some quick beginnings. The Anabaptist/Mennonite movement was started in Zurich Switzerland in about 1525 by a Reformist Christian minister, Conrad Grebel, who promoted a belief system based in part on simplicity, adult baptism (i.e., ‘anabaptism’) and pacifism. The name Mennonite evolved from ‘Mennists’ or ‘Mennoists’ named after Menno Simons, a former Dutch Roman Catholic priest, who in about 1536 was attracted to the Anabaptist movement. Simon’s initiative in Holland spread eastward into Prussia and Poland and gradually German or, more specifically, a version called Plattdeutsch, Plautdietsch or Low German, became became the dominant language of these ‘Dutch’ Mennonites.
Grebel’s teachings found favour among German-speaking, Reformation-minded groups in Switzerland – and spread northward into the adjacent Rhine-valley regions of Palatinate-Germany and Alsace (then German speaking too). These people were known as Swiss Brethren (later Swiss Mennonites in North America).
Both groups were persecuted viciously at the beginning, burnings at the stake included; more than a thousand were put to death in Holland for their beliefs prior to 1600 – but the movement grew and, eventually, Mennonites became more widely accepted by public authorities.
In 1693 a group of Mennonites in Alsace, led by Jakob Amman, upset by what they thought to be a relaxation of Mennonite commitments, formed what became known as Amish. Both Mennonites and Amish adhered to principles outlined in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith, written in 1632 – a document that is still basic to the belief system of most conservative Mennonites and Amish.
Persecution in Switzerland and adjacent Germany led many Swiss Mennonites to immigrate to Pennsylvania which William Penn had acquired from the English Crown in 1683. He established it as home for Quakers and those of similar beliefs. Some Mennonites of Dutch origin came to Pennsylvania, but most were from southern Germany and France (though commonly called Swiss Mennonites). The first Amish from Alsace arrived in Pennsylvania in 1714.
Their pacifist belief has triggered difficulties for Mennonites and Amish throughout their entire history. This is why many came to Pennsylvania from Europe in the late 17th century – and also a major reason why many left Pennsylvania a century later. The problem this time involved the refusal of Mennonites/Amish to fight, first, for the British during the Seven Years’ War in the late 1750s (the war when England expelled France from most of North America) and then about two decades later for American Patriots during the US War of Independence. Mennonites/Amish paid special taxes, and provided services and supplies other than soldiers for the respective armies, but that was scarcely enough to counter the animosity they faced.
After Pennsylvania introduced the Test Act in 1777 (withdrawal of voting rights, among the measures imposed on pacifist groups), many Mennonites and Amish moved to other states and some Mennonites came to Canada. The attractiveness of cheaper farmland was another reason for emigration.

Mennonite Story St Jacobs

The Mennonite Story. A multi-media interpretive centre in St Jacobs, Ontario. mennonitestory@gmail.com, 519-664-3518

Mennonites and Amish Immigration to Canada

The first recorded entry of Mennonites into what is now Ontario was in 1786, to establish a base near ‘The Thirty,’ 30 miles up the Lake Ontario shoreline west of the Niagara River. Settlement spread elsewhere along the Lake Ontario shoreline and also along Lake Erie near the present city of Port Colborne. The most concentrated settlement was near the present town of Vineland. Moyer Mennonite Church (now The First Mennonite Church) in Vineland was established in about 1800 as the first Mennonite church in Canada.
After the American Revolution, in 1784 Joseph Brant of the Six Nations was granted land for six miles on both sides of the Grand River from Lake Erie to the river’s source. He later sold several blocks of this land to non-natives, including three blocks in what’s now the Region of Waterloo.
Block 2 (to become Waterloo Township) was sold by Brant to Richard Beasley in 1796 and he, in turn, sold a few lots to Mennonite immigrants from Pennsylvania. However, there were complications with the legality of these sales that were not resolved until 1805. Steady immigration of Mennonites and others of German-speaking origins occurred into Block 2 after 1805, and continued north into Block 3 (mostly the present Township of Woolwich).
(When Waterloo Regional structure was introduced in 1973, Waterloo Township disappeared and its territory was distributed among the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge and the Township of Woolwich. The present cities of Kitchener, Waterloo and the Preston and Hespeler portions of Cambridge all started as villages in the original Waterloo Township.)
Mennonite settlement also occurred in Markham Township, north of Toronto, beginning about 1800. Just as in the Vineland area and Waterloo, several of those early Mennonite family names are still prominent in York Region today.
The first Amish arrival in Waterloo was Christian Nafziger in 1822 who came to Wilmot Township from Germany seeking a new home for his Amish kin then being persecuted in Bavaria. In 2022, the local Amish-Mennonite community is commemorating the 200th anniversary of his arrival.
The name Waterloo did not come until years later; Waterloo Township and, later, Waterloo County, were named following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 when British forces defeated France’s Napoleon. Before ‘Waterloo’ this area was commonly known as the German Tract.
The first Amish settlers arrived in 1823 and settled in the newly opened Wilmot Township (previously known as the Crown Reserve for the County of Lincoln) to the west of Block 2, and in adjacent parts of what became East Zorra Township in Oxford County. Settlement in this remote area was made easier by opening of the Huron Road, from Guelph to Preston to Goderich, in 1828.
There were actually earlier Amish settlements near Long Point, Ontario and in Vaughn Township north of Toronto, but they died out when the residents returned to the United States after the War of 1812-14.


At least 10,000 people attend the annual Amish School Auction Sale, each July, near Milverton Ontario (raises money for Amish parochial schools)

Challenges for Mennonites and Amish caused by Pacifism and Pietism

The pacifist stance of Mennonites and Amish caused them many problems in Upper Canada in years during and after the War of 1812-14 – especially for settlements near the Niagara River. Special taxes paid by pacifists and the provision of services (i.e., wagons and horses) for military purposes helped to soothe government and public attitudes somewhat, though not that well.
The nineteenth century was an era of turmoil, change and expansion for both Mennonites and Amish in Ontario. The latter half of the century, in particular, was marked by widespread enthusiasm for pietism, a religious philosophy that focused on personal salvation and forgiveness of sins. This philosophy was in conflict with a basic Mennonite/Amish emphasis on the fundamental importance of communities and living a wholesome life in cooperation with others. There were many splits and creations of new groups. These groups included New Mennonites, Reformed Mennonites, Reforming Mennonites (the two were different), the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, United Brethren in Christ (also different), Evangelical Association and Tunkers (the latter also known as River Brethren or Brethren in Christ, and now known in Canada as the Be in Christ Church of Canada). All were German speaking (at least initially). Add to this Lutherans, German Reformed, and Methodists (the latter not German but a powerful champion of pietism) and the result was continual changes in memberships and shifting fortunes for the various groups. Some flourished for decades before disappearing. Others prospered and continued, though often under new names. More on that below.
In addition to the basic philosophical difference described above, other issues of contention included the use of English during worship services, the introduction of Sunday schools and evening prayer meetings (the objections by traditionalists included event leadership by non-ordained people), and the extent to which members of one Mennonite group could associate with members of another.


Horses and buggies await owners at the Amish School Auction Sale

Major Splits Among both Mennonites and Amish

A major spit occurred in 1889 within the Mennonite Church of Canada when a more conservative faction based in Woolwich Township broke away to form what are now known as Old Order Mennonites. The split was over details of worship and basic beliefs. It was not about farming practices because every farmer was an ‘old order’ farmer at that time. Differences in farming practices were to come later.
A similar division occurred at about the same time among the Amish, though in a less-dramatic manner. Initially Amish communities celebrated Sunday worship in family homes. However, as congregations grew, some saw the need to create meetinghouses, with one being built near Tavistock in 1883 and others soon after at St. Agatha and near Baden. The latter, known as the Steinmann meetinghouse, continues to flourish as Steinmann Mennonite Church. These Amish people became known as Church Amish – and later as Amish Mennonites – and some still later as Mennonites.
Amish Mennonite meetinghouses and congregations were also established near the village of Wellesley and in the village of Poole in Mornington Township, Perth County.
(Wellesley Township was slow to be settled compared to other townships in Waterloo because it was initially designated as ‘Clergy Reserve,’ in the original Canada Company title of 1827 to lands between the German Tract and Lake Huron. Wellesley Township opened officially for settlement in about 1847. However, there were lots of squatters before then).
Other Amish congregations were not comfortable with use of meetinghouses and certain other aspects of the new worship services and opted to continue to hold services in their own homes. These folk were called House Amish and, later, Old Order Amish, and established congregations near Poole, Milverton and Millbank in Mornington Township, now part of Perth East Township, Perth County.
Division was not finished for the Amish Mennonites. A sector in the new church congregations in Wellesley and Mornington Townships objected to what they saw as excessive liberalization (apparently two notable issues were the adoption of Sunday school and singing in part harmony – soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and established new congregations and new meetinghouses nearby. Breakaway congregations near Wellesley and Poole affiliated with a US group of Amish called Beachy Amish and the one at Poole is still identified as such today. ‘Pennsylvania Dutch’ German continued to be the language spoken at all Amish services until at least the 1930s. It still is for Old Order Amish.


Peel Old Order Mennonite Meetinghouse, near Wallenstein Ontario (Old Order Mennonite Meetinghouses have no identification signs in front)

Russian Mennonites, David Martin Mennonites and World War I

Another major 19th century event was the first arrival of ‘Russian Mennonites’ in Canada in about 1870. These were the original Dutch and then Prussian (northeastern Germany) Mennonites who had immigrated in the late 1700s and early 1800s to South Russia (now Ukraine) – mainly because of an invitation by Russian ruler, Catherine the Great. But by the 1870s, the Russian welcome was over and Mennonites were facing the same oppression they’d known before for their pacifist beliefs. Mennonite congregations in Ontario helped facilitate the immigration from the Ukraine to Canada and many of the arrivals came to Ontario first. However, they mostly all moved later to southern Manitoba where the countryside was similar to the steppes they were familiar with in the Ukraine. Interestingly, one challenge they had in Ontario was a difference between the Low German the arrivals spoke, and the Pennsylvania Dutch (aka, Dietsch) version of German spoken by Mennonites and Amish in Ontario.
Another significant split occurred, this time among Old Order Mennonites in 1917, with the separation of a group in the Wallenstein-St. Jacobs area to form a more conservative entity later known officially as the Independent Old Order Mennonite Church, but more commonly as David Martin Mennonites. According to Mennonite historian, Samuel Steiner, one cause for the split was the digging of a three-mile municipal farm drain west of St. Jacobs. Under Ontario’s Drainage Act the construction had to be financed by tax contributions from all farmers considered to benefit from its creation. Some of the Old Order farmers were supportive, some were not, and the resulting ill-will added to differences of opinion on other issues as well. One other such issue was the use of bicycles that the breakaway group considered a luxury. Of interest, there were two ‘David Martins,’ the father who was a local bishop and his even more conservative son who was a deacon. Eventually the son set the tone for this new religious group. More about the David Martin Mennonites below.
War has always been a difficult time for pacifist religious groups and that was no different for Mennonites and Amish in Canada. World War I was especially difficult – more so because Mennonites and Amish were not a cohesive group and each tried to communicate with government individually over matters of military services and offsetting financial contributions including taxes. Confusing and different interpretations of government rules added to the turmoil as did the dilemma for young Mennonite and Amish men in deciding whether to register and then seek exemption for farm service, or whether to refuse to register, as conscientious objectors. Add to this strong anti-German sentiments in the community (the city of Berlin Ontario became Kitchener during WW I) and the fact that some form of German was the first language for many Mennonites and all Old Order Amish.
The practice of adult baptism meant that young men were not officially members of the church until their early twenties, and this hampered their ability to claim exemption as formal members of a pacifist Christian church. Finally, some Mennonite groups, notably the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, were not so strongly pacifist and didn’t aggressively discourage enlistment. Mennonite and Amish groups in Ontario ultimately formed the Non-Resistant Relief Organization in early 1918 to coordinate communications with government and relief donations. It was created too late to be of much significance during World War I, but served of some value in World War II, two decades later.
As an interesting aside, Canadian women were granted the right to vote during World War I, but Mennonite and other pacifist-group men lost it at the same time. Fortunately, Fortunately, the latter decision was later reversed.


New (2020) Old Order Mennonite Meetinghouse, north of Elmira Ontario

Clothing Attire Becomes Distinct

The initial years of the 20th century were also significant for Mennonite and Amish clothing styles as well. Distinctive clothing attire had not been of major importance in decades before, but became so more as the various groups sought to emphasize the importance of plainness and absence of individual pretense. Also important was a desire for public distinctiveness at the group level. Mennonite and Amish women covering their heads during worship was a long standing practice; uniformity of the prayer veils and bonnets became specified at a time that the larger Canadian female population was dropping bonnets and moving to hats. Other practices such as the non-use of wedding rings, prohibitions on the cutting of women’s hair and, later, the wearing of ‘cape dresses’ now so routinely associated with Mennonite women, began rather informally and optionally sometime in the late 1800s and in decades to follow.
The cape dress has a double layer of fabric over the bodice.  It was adopted as the wearing of full aprons declined.  The Old Order Amish and some Old Order Mennonites still wear aprons and thus no capes.
The dress code for men, notably plain coats, was generally not enforced as rigidly as for women, except for worship and other related congregational events (funerals, weddings, etc.). However, the use of braces versus belts on pants became standard for several groups as was the use of hook-and-eyes (versus buttons) on jackets, and beards on Old Order Amish men. The matter of voluntary or mandatory compliance with these dress codes was the basis for some congregational splits. The wearing – or not wearing – of beards was also a source of conflict among Mennonite groups.


Elmira North Parochial School (for Old Order and Markham-Waterloo Mennonite children)

More Russian Mennonite Immigration in 1920s, Formation of Markham-Waterloo Mennonites

The defeat of German forces in Europe in 1918 and the Russian Revolution that followed immediately caused huge difficulties for Mennonites remaining in Russia/Ukraine. This led to major immigration into Canada – supported by the existing Mennonite groups in Ontario and Western Canada. The Mennonite Central Committee was formed in the US in 1920 (Canadian office came later) and received strong support from most Canadian and US Mennonite groups to help feed the Mennonites in Russia and support the immigration. Though most of the Canadian immigrants went to Western Canada as they had done in the 1870s, this time many also settled in Ontario – especially in Essex County, the Port Rowan area, near Vineland and Beamsville, and in/near Waterloo County. A Vineland Mennonite, Peter Wall, bought several hundred acres of land from Depression-stressed grain and livestock farmers near Virgil ON in 1934, and made it available to fifty Russian Mennonite families. Resulting farms were too small to support more traditional crop/livestock farming so they turned to horticultural production, and helped transform this area into what is now one of Canada’s prime fruit-growing areas.
The Great Depression forced many Mennonite farmers, especially in Western Canada, off the land and into towns and cities, leaving the Mennonite community more urbanized than it had been before.
The Russian Mennonites came with their own churches and two of these, the United Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren, established congregations in Ontario and the West, with services in Low German. These congregations were generally more liberal than many existing Swiss Mennonite communities in Ontario at the time, reflecting the more liberal culture they brought with them from the Ukraine. They were more like the mainstream Mennonite Church of Ontario and unlike Old Order groups.
Another group arose in 1939 with the creation of the Markham-Waterloo Mennonites. It was the outcome of a decision by Old Order Mennonites near Markham a few years earlier to allow the use of telephones and black cars (initially with obligate black bumpers). ‘Markhamer Mennonites’ or ‘black car Mennonites,’ as they are sometimes called, are very similar today in religious philosophy, and in the use of technologies for farming and living, to Old Order Mennonites – except for the cars and size of agricultural equipment.
The two commonly share rural parochial schools (more on the schools later) and have shared churches as well. For years when you drove past a large Mennonite church on Church Street in Elmira Ontario on Sunday morning, you would see a large number of horses and buggies hitched outside the building one week and black cars the next (services only every second Sunday – and sometimes less frequently – being common for many conservative Mennonite and Amish groups). This ended in 2020 when the Old Order Mennonites built their own, new church north of town.
The Markhamer Mennonite community gradually disappeared from the Markham area in the 1960s and 1970s as members switched memberships to more modern churches. Markham-Waterloo Mennonite congregations are now found mostly in Waterloo Region and Wellington and Perth Counties.


Ladies watching quilts being sold. Ladies in back row are Amish and unmarried (plain dresses, aprons, black bonnets). Three rows ahead is a married Amish lady (white bonnet, no pattern in dress). Ladies with patterned dresses are Mennonite. Note the two young Amish girls in distance in the upper right (aprons are full length)

World War II, Russian Mennonite Immigration after World War II, Plymouth Brethren and Orthodox Mennonites

World War II caused the same turmoil as did WW I among Mennonites, Amish and other pacifist groups – difficulties accentuated by weak coordination among the various pacifist groups, a generally non-sympathetic public and national government especially for German-speaking people, inconsistent court and governmental decisions, and confusion about the membership status of unbaptized young men. Many young Mennonites and Amish attended work camps, an alternative to military service, in Northern Ontario and, later, British Columbia.
The end of World War II was especially difficult for the 100,000 Mennonites still living in Russia/Ukraine, 90% of whom were soon driven out by Stalin. The majority of them were banished to unpleasant fates in Eastern Russia/Siberia but about a third escaped to Germany. Their fate in Germany was still difficult with Soviet leader Stalin wanting them sent home (and hence likely to Siberia) and the Allies often treating them as Nazi sympathizers and not welcoming them as immigrants. About 8500 eventually ended up in Canada, thanks strongly to efforts of the Mennonite Central Committee. About 1500 came to Ontario and the rest to Western Canada. Canadian Mennonite congregations had difficulties dealing with previously, largely unknown issues like unwed mothers who had been raped by enemy soldiers, and husbands missing after forced service in Soviet or German armies. Denial of membership or communion sometimes occurred. This is a complex and difficult saga but I’ll provide no more here. For those interested, check the references at the column’s end. I’m told by a classmate who is the descendent of a ‘Russian’ Mennonite who escaped from the Ukraine at that time, that there are essentially no Mennonites left in the Ukraine today.
Wellesley Township in Waterloo Region has been the centre of several divisions among Mennonites. One major incident occurred around 1934 when a group known as Plymouth Brethren (started a few years earlier in Ireland and England) staged an extended religious revival campaign at Hawkesville. This caused many former Mennonites to leave their traditional churches and join the new gospel mission. About one thousand people observed a baptism by immersion one day in the nearby Conestogo River. The Hawkesville Bible Chapel existed until 1967 or 1968 when its members joined a split-off group from the Elmira Mennonite Church to form the larger Wallenstein Bible Chapel about 5 km further north.
Also unusual was the creation of the officially named Orthodox Mennonite Church of Wellesley Township. It was created in 1956 by Elam S. Martin, initially a David Martin minister who left that group after being excommunicated twice. He took many David Martin members with him and starting his own church. The new group was commonly known as Elam S. Martin Mennonites. Eighteen years later a split occurred within this group, with one of the issues being obligate beards for men. The pro-beard group led by Elam S. Martin left Wellesley and establishing a new Orthodox Mennonite community near Gorrie Ontario in Huron County. It is probably now the most conservative of the Mennonite groups in Ontario. The remaining group split again soon afterward, with many members rejoining the David Martins and the rest remaining as Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites.
Their meetinghouse near Hawkesville burned in August 2019; a local newspaper article at the time said it had not been used regularly for 30 years. The cemetery still exists though I don’t know whether it has been used for recent burials. It is maintained by other Old Order Mennonites who live nearby.
A nearby small school, initially established by Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites in about 1965, was then used by Old Order Mennonites after about 1974, before being closed as a school in 2018. It now serves as a supply depot for Old Order Mennonite schools across Ontario. It doesn’t appear that the Wellesley Orthodox Mennonites still exist as a functioning church, but some organizational structure may still survive.
As an interesting aside: Old Order Mennonites and Amish use their mother’s maiden name as their second name. For example, ‘Terry M. Daynard’ would mean my mother’s last name began with ‘M’ (perhaps ‘Martin’). But those born as Orthodox Mennonites, commonly have the initials ‘EM’ as their second name – EM coming from ‘Elam Martin.’ You can see this on rural mail boxes near Gorrie.


Aggressive bidding for farm equipment at an Amish School Auction Sale near Milverton Ontario

Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico, Recent Amish Immigration into Ontario from the United States

The post-World War II era saw the arrival of two other groups of Mennonites and Amish into Ontario and Western Canada. One group is sometimes called Low German-Speaking Mennonites – with many of them being members of a religious branch called Old Colony Mennonites. These people once lived in Manitoba following an earlier immigration from Russia/Ukraine, but then left Canada for northern Mexico and other Latin American locations in the 1920s. (As an aside, they acquired the name, ‘Old Colony,’ more than a century earlier when they were the first of two similar but distinct Mennonite groups to settle in the Ukraine. I’m told the more proper name for ‘Old Colony’ is Khortiza or Chortiza Colony, and they were once located on the Dnieper River not far from where warfare is raging in 2022 between Ukrainians and Russian armies in Southern Ukraine.) Their relocation to Mexico was prompted in part by a Manitoba Government decision that all schools had to operate now in English, not German.
But conditions after World War II in Mexico caused many of them to return to Canada beginning in the early 1950s. Most returned to Western Canada but about 3000 came to Ontario with the biggest settlement being around Tillsonburg and later Aylmer. There were also new settlements in Wellesley Township and in Perth, Wellington, Kent and Essex Counties. Some formed their own Old Colony churches and others joining existing Mennonite and non-Mennonite-though-German-based congregations.
Low German Mennonites from Mexico continue to immigrate into Ontario/Canada from Mexico including many now coming into townships in/near Waterloo Region where they are often employed by other Mennonites, particularly David Martin Mennonites. (Because they can drive and own cars, Old Colony employees often serve as chauffeurs for David Martins.) Language is an obstacle with the arrivals speaking Spanish and Low German and the operating languages in the Waterloo area being Pennsylvania Dutch (Deitsch) and English.
As of early 2022, some Old Colony members are again leaving Canada, or at least Ontario, to return to Mexico or other Latin American countries such as Columbia. The reasons are said to be a combination of higher costs of living and economic struggles in Canada, difficulties with language, differences in culture, and (perhaps) new rules linked to the Covid epidemic. For some of them the relocation is simplified by the fact that they remain citizens of these countries that they left a decade (more or less) ago.
The years 1953 to 1970 also saw the establishment of 10 new Amish communities across Southern Ontario, all of them immigrants from the US. This wave of immigration was triggered by continuing military conscription in the US (though not in Canada), the Vietnam War, and the introduction of some social insurance programs that Old Order groups in the US opposed. Of course, when Canada introduced similar programs during the 1960s and 1970s – like use of Social Insurance Numbers (SIN) and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) – and the US draft ended – the incentive to come to Canada disappeared and the immigration stopped. (Old Order Mennonites and Amish in Canada eventually secured exemptions from CPP participation and use of SIN for anything other than income tax filing, but the process took many years of petitions to the Government of Canada.)  New Old Order Amish settlements arose near Aylmer, Norwich, Lakeside (St. Marys), Tavistock, Gorrie, Wallacetown, Mount Elgin, Belleville, Teeswater and Lucknow. Not all of these survived but most are still there today. This represented a huge expansion from the earlier Old Order Amish base that was mostly in Mornington Township and the western edge of Wellesley Township.
Old Order Amish, unlike most of the other Mennonite and Amish groups, have no formal structure connecting different congregations. This means limited communication among the different groups in Ontario and, as a result, beliefs and accepted living practices differ significantly. The connections are often stronger with US Amish communities from where they originated. They are also strong where daughter congregations have been created in Canada, triggered by both population growth (large families) and the limited availability of additional farmland in existing areas. Of interest, Amish now live only in the United States and Canada, with the largest number residing in Ohio, but with substantial numbers also in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Mennonites, by contrast, are found in many countries.


Current building for Maple View Mennonite Church. Congregation established before 1900 by Amish Mennonites, near Wellesley Ontario

Creation of Western Ontario Mennonite Conference and Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario, One-Room Schools, Public Service

The post-World War II years saw a continuation of divisions among Mennonite and Amish Mennonite congregations and the creation of new ones, often located not far away. There were differences of opinion on issues such as dress code, the cutting (or not) of women’s hair, wearing of wedding rings and jewelry, presence or absence of beards, use or not of alcohol, tobacco, televisions (generally banned) and radios (often permitted), families sitting together at church (versus men and women separated), use of musical instruments in churches, the ability to sing in four-part harmony versus in unison (some considered four-part harmony to be too pretentious), the ability to vote in public elections, acceptance of government benefits, and personality conflicts. There were breakaways to form new congregations that were either more conservative or more liberal. Some new multi-congregational alliances or ‘conferences’ were created but many congregations remained independent.
In 1963, more liberal Amish Mennonite churches renamed their conference, the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference, eliminating the word, Amish. However, conservative ‘Beachy’ Amish Mennonites retained it, and there were breakaways from Beachy to form other conservative groups.
A larger split occurred in 1960 when a number of Ontario congregations, led by six ordained men in Wilmot Township, left the mainstream Mennonite Church of Ontario to form the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario. It established several new congregations quite quickly in Waterloo (starting with one in Heidelberg), and in Huron County (Zurich and Brussels).
The decision by the Province of Ontario to close all one-room elementary schools in Ontario in 1965 led to major disruption. Prior to then, Old Order children had attended small (generally one-room) public schools along with all other rural Ontario children. A classmate of mine, raised in what’s now the township of North Perth, tells of attending a one-room elementary school in the 1950s with 30-40 other children, more than half of whom were Amish, apparently without notable complications.
But Old Order leaders, Amish and Mennonite, rejected new centralized larger schools for several reasons including bus-riding, exposure to ‘dangerous’ new influences (eg., evolution) and technologies (television), physical education classes and more. As a result, the Government of Ontario agreed to let these groups establish their own one-room schools, with local school boards just as had existed before. This was a very traumatic period for Old Order groups as it meant a need for an across-congregational organization beyond what most had known before, plus the financing of schools and training of teachers. Almost none of the Old Order trustees or early teachers had ever advanced in school beyond age 14, the age that Ontarians who were farm children were permitted to quit school at the time, and the age at which almost every Old Order Mennonite and Amish child did. (The age to which Ontario children must attend school has since risen to 16, but remains 14 for these parochial schools.)
In Midwestern Ontario, a Waterloo-Wellington-Perth Parochial School district association was created with 61 schools – 36 owned/operated by Old Order Mennonites, 11 by Old Order Amish, eight by Markham-Waterloo Mennonites and six by Orthodox Mennonites. Many of the school buildings were generally built new as the former township school boards opposed the creation of the new parochial schools and mostly refused to sell them the former one-room schools, even though they were no longer needed. (Most were sold for conversion to homes.) However Mennonite/Amish parochial schools were also built from converted farm houses land one was made from a former chicken house.
The number of Old Order schools has increased substantially since 1965. It’s my understanding that cooperation is minimal between Old Order Amish and the conservative Mennonite groups (Old Order, Markham-Waterloo and Orthodox, who do operate joint schools). Intriguingly, David Martin Mennonite children, though also Old Order in many ways, go to regular public schools, as do Old Colony Mennonites. The public school in Floradale, ON is unique that it until recently provided schooling for David Martin, Old Colony, Old Order and Markham-Waterloo Mennonite children, as well as non-Mennonites (known by Old Order people as “The English”). However, the Old Order and Markham-Waterloo students now go to a new parochial school nearby. I’m told that ‘English’ kids are now only about 30% of the student population at the Linwood Public School.
Schooling is in English even though children often speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home. There have been some intriguing initiatives. For many years the Waterloo Region District School Board owned and operated the small Three-Bridges public school near St. Jacobs, for Mennonite children of all types (but especially Old Order), apparently as a failed early attempt to keep Old Order children still in the provincial public school system after 1965. It was closed a few years ago because of declining attendance. However, it has recently been purchased by Old Colony Mennonites and is now used to educate their children. I don’t know the current language(s) of instruction but it could be Spanish and/or Low German – as well as English.
There is so much more that could be written as background information on who the Mennonites and Amish are, and how they got to who they are today. Mennonites – including those originating from the ‘Church’ Amish Mennonites – are known for well-known their charity and kindness to others, both locally and internationally. The Mennonite Central Committee, now with Canadian headquarters in Winnipeg but with a strong Ontario presence, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020. The New Hamburg Mennonite Relief Sale has raised substantial funds from the auction sale of quilts for more than 50 years. Deserving of special praise is the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), founded in 1952 and supported by both Old-Order and modern Mennonites. As but one example of its activities, MDS had support teams on the ground immediately afterwards to help clean up the debris left by a tornado at Goderich, Ontario in August 2011. The Waterloo-based charity, MEDA (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) has near-70-year history of service to developing countries. There are many other related programs.
Mennonites/Amish in Ontario are generally rural with roots in farming but with congregations in cities as well (examples, Greater Toronto Area, St. Catharines, London, Hamilton, and Ottawa, along with a strong urban presence in Waterloo Region). There is also a major urban presence in Western Canada. Mennonites have a long history of mission work in inner Toronto.
Mennonites established a residential and teaching college, Conrad Grebel University College, soon after the founding of the University of Waterloo in 1957. Among other functions, Conrad Grebel does a great job in documenting Mennonite and Amish history. Conrad Grebel-based materials on the web are the source of much of what’s written in this column.
There is a Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg though I know of little more than its existence.


Cedar Grove Amish Mennonite Church, about 1 km from Maple View Mennonite Church. Cedar Grove began as a breakaway congregation by more conservative families from Maple View

Mennonite and Amish Communities in Ontario Today

The remainder of this article involves a listing and brief description of the various Mennonite and Amish groups and congregations as they existed across Ontario in 2022 – or as close to 2022 as I can find relevant information. The web map posted here prepared by Samuel Steiner of Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo (retired), shows the location of more than 260 Mennonite (including Amish Mennonite) churches (or ‘meetinghouses,’ the term some prefer) and about 40 Old Order Amish ‘districts.’ Old Order Amish do not have churches/meetinghouses and refer to their various congregations as districts.
In a detailed history of Mennonites and Amish, entitled, In Search of Promised Lands, Samuel Steiner identifies 33 different Mennonite/Amish groups in Ontario and divides them into four general categories. The four are Old Order (OO), Separatist Mennonites (SM), Evangelical Mennonites (EM) and Assimilated Mennonites (AM). OO are mostly ‘horse and buggy’ Mennonites and Amish, although many use some farming, business and home technologies that would be labelled by most people as modern, and Markham-Waterloo Mennonites drive black cars. SM includes groups who accept some evangelistic philosophy and government programs but also stick with many practices that make them visible, like prayer veils and plain dress. EM means groups that are more evangelical and with limited or no compliance with old-order practices. AM means groups that use the same living and farming practices as the rest of modern society.
I’ve listed most of the 33 groups in this table, the contents of which came from Steiner’s book.

2020-06-28 11_17_19-Document3 - Word

The Mennonite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) is the result of a 1988 merger of three groups with distinctly different origins: the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec (mainly Pennsylvania/Swiss Mennonite origins), the United Mennonite Church of Ontario (Russian/Ukrainian Mennonites), and the Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (Amish Mennonites). MCEC is a member of Mennonite Church Canada.
Mention should also be made of the Midwest Mennonite Fellowship, an affiliation created in 1977 from previously unaffiliated and relatively conservative congregations from Ontario to Iowa. About 50% of its current membership is in Canada (10 churches in Ontario and one in Alberta). This is a separate entity from the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario.
The diversity of groups is large, indeed far more than I expected when I started this project. I’ll focus below on the Old Order groups that are the most unique and also very diverse.
In general, most Old Order groups use horses and buggies for personal transport, with the women wearing bonnets and distinctive dresses, and the men wearing braces instead of belts for trouser suspension. But there are also notable differences and the rules on what’s allowed for the various groups change over time. My information may not all be current.
The process for change generally involves a combination of special congregational meetings and decisions (unilateral or based on consensus) by bishops and ministers.
Old-Order Mennonites and Markham-Waterloo Mennonites now use tractors for farming, telephones – including cell phones (at least in practice, though not clear if this is approved by the church) but not ‘smart phones’ – and various types of electrical equipment and appliances powered by line electricity. They don’t own computers but can hire computer services done by others. There are some restrictions on tractor usage, e.g., not over a certain speed or size (100 horsepower, I’m told), and not used to pull loaded wagons on municipal roads to transport farm produce (eg., hay) from one farm to another. At one time, they could not use tractors with cabs but I’m told this changed when the purchase of new farm-scale cab-less tractors proved too difficult. They are obliged to remove windows from the tractor cabs. Old Order Mennonites can use covered buggies with rubber-tired wheels (including pneumatic), unlike some other old order groups.
The population of Old Order Mennonites, following an initial 1967 expansion to farmland around Mount Forest, has ballooned since 1990 with new congregations/churches at Chesley, Teeswater, Kinloss, Dunnville, Lindsay, Matheson and Massey Ontario.
Thanks to an overall organizational structure for Ontario, the Old Order Mennonite Church, practices are similar at all places.
Old-Order and Markham-Waterloo Mennonites cooperate a great deal, sharing schools, and meetingplaces for church services. (The latter was more common in the past; I’m told that this now occurs only at a meetingplace near Floradale, Ontario.)
Orthodox Mennonites are more restrictive – no phones, line electricity, rubber-tired buggies or farm tractors, as I understand it. However, I do believe that they can use diesel- or gasoline-powered machinery for some tasks (sawing boards out of logs, for example).
David Martin Mennonites are a combination of very conservative and very modern. They don’t own or use farm tractors and don’t use electricity provided by roadside electrical lines. They do use telephones including cell phones and, I understand, some modern home appliances. There are strict limitations on usage of electricity in the houses, but much less so in the farm shops. They don’t allow televisions but do use computers, including Internet, for business purposes. Indeed, they have their own Internet server company. Their rules for buggies are apparently about the same as for Old Order Mennonites though David Martin buggies and wagons are often larger. David Martins use use only steel-rimmed buggy wheels (unlike Old Order Mennonites, at least in/near Waterloo Region, who use rubber-lined wheels; that’s how you can tell the two apart on the road, I’m told).
David Martin Mennonites, like most Mennonites and Amish, are very entrepreneurial. You can tell that from the many end-of-farm-lane-signs advertizing many items for sale including maple syrup, garden produce, prepared foods, furniture, quilts and other home-made/home-grown products. One suspects that this represents a substantial portion of family cash income because the farms are generally not large. Sunday sales, of course, are forbidden.
David Martin Mennonites often go beyond this by adding on-farm manufacturing capabilities such as complex metal machining and injection molding for plastics. To do so, they use sophisticated computer software, complex electrical tools and other electronic equipment as long as it does not use line electricity. Farms often have very large electric generators powered by diesel fuel that produce 120/240 volt electricity – and up to or above 600-volt, three-phase electricity when needed for manufacturing purposes.
Although David Martins can’t own tractors, they are allowed to own ‘skid-steers’ which are used to load and unload semi-trailer trucks bringing raw materials in and finished products out. Several David Martin Mennonites are deeply involved in very sophisticated and large-scale plastic and metal manufacturing. One of them has a laser capable of slicing 1-inch steel. A plastic injection machine, weighing 135 tonnes and capable of applying a clamping force of about 200 tonnes, was installed in a barn near Wallenstein. Until dismantled after the contract job was done, it was one of the largest in Canada. David Martin Mennonites are a major supplier for many of the plastic items sold by the chain, Home Hardware, from its corporate base in St. Jacobs.
It’s fascinating to drive past David Martin farms in parts of Wellesley Township with no sign of public electrical service at the municipal road, with farm fields worked by horses and personal transportation provided by horses and buggies (bicycle usage is banned as are rubber coated buggy wheels), but also with substantial on-farm shop buildings equipped for highly sophisticate industrial production. Skid-steers have been seen pulling farm equipment in fields, but I am not sure how successfully.
Although David Martin Mennonites cannot own/operate regular farm tractors themselves, they can hire other farmers to do this. I’m told that providing tractor-powered farm services represents a significant source of income for a few farmer neighbours of David Martins in Grey County.
David Martin Mennonites are known as shrewd business people and hard bargainers. They are also very private, not inclined for social interaction or discussion with other Mennonite and Amish groups except on matters of business. David Martins are forbidden from talking to outsiders about their religion or attending religious events not led by their own clergy. David Martins (sometimes known locally by the more colloquial ‘The Daves’) are one of the most strict in use of excommunication and shunning to ostracize members who violate rules. But they can be quite liberal in other ways, including tolerance for smoking (men only) and use of alcohol, and in acceptance of the once more widely practiced Mennonite tradition of ‘bundling’ during courtship. (Young couples share closed bedrooms and beds during evening visits, but supposedly remain fully clothed throughout.)
Unlike the other Old Order groups, David Martin Mennonites readily apply for and accept government support when available for funding farming programs.
There has been a major expansion of Ontario’s David Martins in very recent years with four new meetingplaces built in Grey County and with the farms also extending into Dufferin County. I’m told that David Martin farmers actually bought some of this land several years ago but have only settled there in large numbers since about 2020.
The Reformed Mennonite Church with congregations near Amulree (near Shakespeare ON) and Stevensville (near Fort Erie), plus about six-to-eight other locations in the United States was once much larger in number of congregations. Reformed Mennonites drive cars and farm with modern methods but remain quite distant from other Mennonite groups socially and in sharing in religious events (weddings, funerals, listening to sermons by other ministers, etc.). Reformed Mennonite children attend regular public schools and apparently are allowed lots of flexibility in social activities until they are baptized and join the church at about age 20 – sometimes much later. Thereafter, the penalties for those who don’t follow rules, including imposition of well-enforced excommunication and shunning, are substantial. This, apparently, is one reason why many children don’t bother joining the church when they become adults and why the number of Reformed Mennonites is in decline.
Old Order Amish are somewhat more complex in that there is no coordinating structure across Ontario and each congregation/district operates independently. Distinct differences exist among the five core groups (and their daughter districts) that arrived in Ontario at different times and from different places in Europe or the US. I am indebted to Barb Draper, Fred Lichti and the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario (June 2017 newsletter, referenced below; see also here) for the following guide to 45 Old Order Amish districts in Ontario.

Old Order Amish groups in Ontario

Although all Old Order Amish are horse and buggy people, the rules vary among groups. One source states the Swartzentruber Amish near Owen Sound and Iron Bridge ON are likely the most conservative (no indoor plumbing, flower gardens, gas lanterns or orange-triangle slow-moving-vehicle signs on buggies) – while another district near Lakeside/St. Marys is the most liberal – not that any of the rest of us might notice much difference.
For the oldest and largest group located near Milverton and Millbank (commonly called Milverton Amish), buggies with rubber tires and bicycles are not allowed (though bicycle-like scooters are) and telephones are permitted but only if located in separate, small telephone houses located away from the house. Ownership of cars and tractors is not allowed although Milverton Amish can hire cars for transport if driven by others. The same applies for some types of tractor farm work done by others.
A few years ago, my wife and I attended a tour of Mornington Township (now part of Perth East) Amish farms organized by a Perth County historical group, visiting one farm where the family owned a loader bucket for a front-end tractor loader. It was used for moving/loading barnyard manure. The farmer could not own the tractor itself but could hire his non-Amish neighbour with a tractor to use his loader bucket for cleaning out his barn. We also visited an Amish farmer with a large shop where he installed new fiberglass buggy wheels with steel rims – also adding buggy springs and turn-signal indicator lights powered by a 12-volt battery. The Amish proprietor told us he sometimes had difficulties in selling the new buggies and buggy upgrades. “These people are a bit slow to accept new technologies,” was his lament. I kidded him at the time about an option for adding GPS but realized that horse-driven vehicles already have a form of auto-steer.
Access to public electrical service is forbidden but not the use of diesel-engine-powered generators. I’m informed by electricians who provide installation services in that area that diesel engines and generators power Amish shop equipment using systems of pulleys, shafts and belts and 12-Volt electrical services. The use of 120/240-Volt systems is forbidden. Batteries coupled to inverters provide electricity when diesel engines are not running. One Amish workshop near Milverton has solar cells on his shop roof to produce electricity, coupled with batteries for electricity storage.
Rules on the use of dairy milking equipment including the powering of milk coolers has been a challenge for Old Order Amish farms for many decades. I’m told of one farm where the compressor motor on the bulk-tank milk cooler is belt-driven by a small diesel engine and the tank agitator by a 12V electric motor.
I’ve recently learned that the combination of diesel engines powering large oil-hydraulic pumps, plus long hydraulic lines and the use of hydraulic motors to run various pieces of barn and shop equipment, has become popular among Old Order Amish near Milverton/Millbank. Apparently, this system has been long-used by some Amish communities in the United States. The extent to which use of home-generated electricity is allowed by Old Order Amish is very limited compared to what applies for David Martin Mennonites.
The rate and extent of adoption of newer technology can be a major source of friction within Old Order Amish communities. A split has occurred very recently within the Old Order Amish community around Milverton and Millbank in Perth East over the use of pipelines within dairy barns to transport milk from cow milking machines to the milk cooling tank. There are likely other reasons for  the split too. Rules on cell phone usage are, apparently, another reason for the split.
Shunning is practiced fairly vigorously within Old Order Amish communities. ‘Silencing’ is also used by Old Order Amish and Mennonites which means that ministers aren’t allowed to deliver sermons during church services until they have corrected their ‘messages.’ Fortunately, I’m told shunning has not occurred in the split in the Amish community in Perth East Township, at least not yet. However, the split has meant the need for a new array of clergy – bishop(s), ministers and deacons.
Old Order Amish men wear beards, though not mustaches – similar for Orthodox Mennonites – but David Martins and Old Order Mennonites are generally beardless. The style of ladies’ bonnets and dress material for cape dresses is distinct for each group – patterned fabric allowed for Old Order Mennonites, plain only for Old Order Amish, and brown only for Orthodox Mennonites. David Martin ladies often wear purple and dark blue. The colour of the bonnet also depends on whether the lady is married.
Alcohol and tobacco use are banned by many groups (though, interestingly, that was not the case 100-150 years ago, when the both of use was common).
Some background is also merited on the picking of clergy. In traditional Swiss Mennonite and Amish congregations (though generally not Russian Mennonite) ministers are chosen by lot. Each of the eligible men (but not women) in the congregation is given a hymn book at a special service with one of the books containing a slip of paper informing the holder that he is the chosen one. That person is then expected to lead future services of worship and provide an exemplary model of proper living – all without any training or financial compensation. I’ve read that newly chosen ministers and their families have sometimes had to cease usage of some modern conveniences in their homes and on farms to ensure that they are fully in compliance with church rules. (The rules are often not that clearly defined.)
In some conservative groups, there is usually a nomination process where the ‘voice of the congregation is sought.’  Individuals who are nominated are then interviewed and have the option to withdraw (perhaps by saying they do not hear God’s call at this time) but it is rare.
The bishop, who normally oversees several congregations, might also be chosen by lot from among ministers, or by ministerial collective decision, depending on the group. Churches also usually have deacons to deal with matters like building maintenance, finances and related issues. Deacons also deal with alms and supporting widows/sick/elderly.
With more modern groups, ministers are now paid positions and are selected by standard nomination and interview procedures, the same as other protestant churches. The Mennonite Church Eastern Canada eliminated the title of bishop more than 60 years ago, with those functions now being done by others in the church administration.
The selection of ministers and bishops by lot still applies for most, if not all, Old Order groups.
Farming has been the main occupation for Old Order Amish men in Ontario but I am told that is changing with other trades such as construction and wood working representing an important – indeed, often dominant source of family income. Amish are not (at least not yet) into on-farm manufacturing or plastic and metal products to the same extent as David Martin Mennonites just a few km away. However, some Amish communities are very active in building construction.
Finally, it should be noted that some of Ontario’s Old Order Amish are in the process of leaving the province and returning to the United States. Well-connected sources say members of the Lakeside (St. Marys) community along with a daughter group near Powassan will likely all be gone by sometime in 2023. The same is happening, though I’m not sure how extensively, for Amish near Mount Elgin. The reasons are considered to be a combination of very high farm land prices, a desire for a broader genetic base and, perhaps, new government rules related to the Covid pandemic. The farms owned by departing Amish families near Powassan are being purchased by other Amish expanding from another community near Lucknow. However, the farms of those near Lakeside are being sold to non Amish.


An entrepreneurial Old Order Mennonite Farm near St. Clements, Ontario. Livestock production, floral greenhouses, furniture manufacture in building to right

Final Comments, Acknowledgments, References and Further Information

As stated at the beginning, my overview has been far from exhaustive. It’s intended for those wanting to read more than a newspaper article, but not the several hours needed to digest material much more complete. My article is provided for people like me with little prior knowledge of Mennonites and Amish in Ontario.
I express deep appreciation to several people whose help was essential to this project – Samuel Steiner of Kitchener for providing most of the historical material which I’ve condensed into the article; Gerry Horst, Woolwich Township and manager of the Mennonite Story, St. Jacobs for all of his insight and guidance, and for answering my dozens of questions; Christine Kuepfer, Millbank, who did the same for my many questions about Amish – and to them plus Richard Reesor and Andrew Reesor-McDowell of York Region, and Margaret and Bob Hunsberger of the City of Waterloo and Woolwich Township for carefully reviewing drafts of this article. Thanks also to Calvin Schmidt of  Perth East for providing insight on Reformed and David Martin Mennonites. Notwithstanding their input, all remaining errors or oversights in the article are solely my responsibility.
Although a vast diversity exists among Mennonite/Amish groups in style of living and employment/farming practices, they have several distinct features in common. Two, of course, are the practices of adult baptism and pacifism in a Christian context. To this, I would add modesty and the aversion of Mennonites and Amish to the drawing of personal attention to themselves. The term, ‘a bragging Mennonite’ would be a definite oxymoron. Highly significant, in my view, is their strong commitment to the wellbeing of their communities – both local and global. Their commitments to charitable endeavours including the Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Disaster Service, and Mennonite Economic Development Associates are prime examples of this ethic.
I am lucky to have them as neighbours.
Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of the Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo, and others with related expertise, there is a good amount of published material available, in both print and on-line. Here are some good ones, in my opinion:
In Search of Promised Lands, by Samuel J. Steiner, 2015. Herald Press, Kitchener. This 594-page historical review (plus nearly 300 pages of additional notes and bibliography) extends from the year 1536 until about 2014 and is very complete. It has a primary focus on Ontario but also has lots of information on Mennonites and Amish in Europe, the United States and Western Canada. It’s available on line from Amazon Kindle. Mr. Steiner is a retired librarian and archivist at Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.
This highly useful Google web map, produced by Samuel Steiner, shows all Mennonite and Amish churches and districts in Ontario.
The Plain People, A Glimpse at Life among the Old Order Mennonites of Ontario, by John Peters, 2003. Pandora Press, Kitchener – a short, highly readable, overview primarily about Old Order Mennonites.
Old Order Mennonites of Ontario: Gelassenheit, Discipleship, Brotherhood, by Donald Martin, 2003.Pandora Press, Kitchener.
The Mennonite Story. A multi-media interpretive centre in St Jacobs, Ontario. mennonitestory@gmail.com, 519-664-3518.
Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia on Line (www.gameo.org). This service, originated in part by Conrad Grebel University College, is a great source of information.
Ontario Mennonite History. The newsletter for the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario (http://www.mhso.org/content/ontario-mennonite-history-periodical) is published every six months (variable schedule in the past) with many articles on Mennonite and Amish history. Some favourite articles (for me) are:
Old Order Amish, a diverse group. By Barb Draper, June 2017
Old Order daughter communities not sustainable before 1960s. By Barb Draper, June 2016
The Leamington Mennonite story. By Walt Koop, October 2015
The role of shoebox historians (Markham Mennonites). By George Reesor. June 2014
The changing culture of Old Colony Mennonites. By Kerry Fast. October 2012
My relatives: ultra conservative Mennonites. (David Martin Mennonites). By Charlotte Martin. May 1998.

Original Posting, July, 2020. Last update, September 2022

How Does the World Feed 10 Billion People by 2050 While Reducing Agricultural GHG Emissions by Two-Thirds? A Critique of World Resource Institute Recommendations

2020-04-15 12_11_16-Window

As we approach mid-2020, the world is focused almost exclusively on the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightfully so. Eventually global challenges that were dominant only weeks ago will return to prominence – and that includes climate change and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Agriculture and food production are important sources of GHG emissions.  The task of substantially reducing GHG net emissions in agriculture while simultaneously increasing world food supply will be especially difficult.

Some agricultural groups are using the present COVID-induced hiatus – and the paucity of meetings, conferences and associated travel – to consider strategies for meeting the GHG/food-supply challenge. For those who doing so, a 2019 report called Creating a Sustainable Food Future published in 2019 by the World Resources Institute (WRI) is a highly valuable resource.

At 556 pages, the report is very long, something that precluded my own reading of it until COVID-seclusion provided the needed time. I have not read it all, but I’ve read most. It’s a comprehensive, well-written and – for the most part in my view – credible analysis and presentation of a strategy for feeding nearly 10 billion people in 2050. That’s an increase of 56% in global food calories needed above the WRI-chosen base year of 2010. The report also includes a strategy for a two-thirds reduction by 2050 in GHG emissions associated with agriculture – to meet a target that they define as 4 Gt/year of CO2 equivalent in net emissions.

The report has a three-page executive summary and a 40-page overview that provides an overview for readers (i.e., almost everyone) not wanting to read it all. I see little value in my repeating that summary in any detail here. It’s easily accessible by clicking this link. But I will note that WRI strategy consists of five parts (or “courses” as the authors refer to them); they are:

  1. Reduce Growth in Demand for Food and Other Agricultural Products, including less wastage/loss, fewer livestock, no biofuels and fewer human births;
  2. Increase Food Production without Expanding Agricultural Land, including improved livestock, crop and land productivity, and water-use efficiency;
  3. Protect and Restore Natural Ecosystems and Limit Agricultural Land-Shifting, including different usages for marginal agricultural land;
  4. Increase Fish Supply, including both wild fisheries and fish farms; and
  5. Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Agricultural Production, including less methane and nitrous oxide from ruminants, manure, fertilizer application and rice farms; use of non-fossil-fuel energy and consideration of soil C sequestrations.

The authors conclude that meeting a 4Gt CO2 equivalent target for net GHG emissions will be more difficult than that of producing more food. That makes sense to me.

If you or your organization are considering options/strategies for increasing food production while reducing GHG emissions, the WRI report is one good place to start.

At the same time, there are some notable weaknesses in Creating a Sustainable Food Future, at least in my opinion, and readers/planners should be aware of them. Since I’ve not seen these discussed elsewhere, I’ll do so below.

  1. WRI projections are essentially all based on the output of a multi-component model called the “GlobAgri-WRR” model. A brief overview of the model is provided in an appendix, and reference is made to various model assumptions throughout the text. However, many of the calculations remain obscure and the sensitivity of model output to these assumptions is largely undefined. The authors present one table comparing their projections of future agricultural land-use needs to those of other investigators using other models (Table 10-1). Differences of several hundred million hectares exist among these models in calculated land requirement for global food production. This does not mean the WRI model projections are meaningless. It just means interpret with caution.
  2. The authors generally provide no indication of their relative confidence in their various projections and analysis of options. I prefer the approach used in most IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) documents where relative confidence in most statements/conclusions is stated. Even better would be statistical confidence ranges for various projections though I realize that this is virtually impossible with the modelling approach used.
  3. The authors assume that agri-food import/export balances will remain unchanged on a percent basis until the year 2050. And with rare exceptions, they have avoided economic considerations in their analyses. Indeed, the authors argue that economic input would weaken their analysis and projections. I find this curious in that economics is generally about how finite resources are allocated among competing demands. Given that the increase in food demand will be largely concentrated in some regions/continents/countries (eg. Sub-Saharan Africa) much more than others (eg., Europe), it’s puzzling that corresponding shifts in import/export patterns are largely rejected in the modelling approach.
  4. The authors also avoid discussion of the effects of their recommendations on the economic and social viability of farm families and associated rural communities – especially in developed countries. It seems deficient to recommend, for example, that the United States abandon production of fuel ethanol from corn (more discussion below) without considering the effect on the rural economy of the US Midwest. The report does discuss effects of some of their recommendations on rural communities in parts of the developing world.
  5. While the authors consider regional differences in model inputs, the output is generally one set of numbers for the entire world. The implication is that the solutions offered are largely global – with a few notable exceptions (example, limiting birth rates in Africa). I found this limitation to be frustrating as it implies that, for example, that North America should curtail grain processing for non-food uses because more food will needed in Africa. The flaws in meeting world food needs by increased shipment of food ingredients from ‘have’ countries to ‘have nots’ like Canada have been demonstrated on numerous occasions over the past century – and as recently as the ‘food crisis’ and the associated panic buying, hoarding and export prohibitions of 2007/08. We are seeing signs of the same in early stages of the COVID-19 crisis. Most countries want some degree of food self-sufficiency, regardless of the ease of importation during so-called ‘normal’ times. For more discussion on this, see The 2007/08 Agricultural Price Spikes: Causes and Policy Implications, issued by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Government of the UK.
  6. The authors emphasize comparisons with the years 1960 to 2010 – and sometimes 1980-2010 – in computing the potential for annual incremental increases in average agricultural/food production. But they don’t acknowledge that the years from about 1981 to 2007 were mostly years of global surplus production for many agricultural commodities. Indeed, that quarter century was an era when the focus of many (most?) international agricultural negotiations was on managing surplus production. Several countries introduced programs to discourage farm production for food during those years. One of the stated goals of the ill-fated Doha Round of World Trade Organization negotiations was to reduce subsidies that encouraged over-production and exports of cheap food ingredients to less-developed, less-wealthy countries. Many countries – both developed and under-developed – reduced expenditures on agriculture after about 1981. To base estimates of future productivity on production during decades when increased production was often discouraged seems misguided.
  7. One must agree with the authors’ assertion that reduction in food losses and wastage represents good opportunity to increase food supply. However, I don’t believe enough attention was given by WRI to the issue of year-to-year variations in weather and crop productivity. Food processors and farmers supplying those companies usually plan for some over-production in seasonal plantings to allow for those unpredictable years when inclement weather or pests mean below-average production. The same applies to the need to have reasonable reserves (including commodities with relatively short warehousing lifetimes) for disruptions in transportation, labour supply, government interjections and irrational hoarding. Wastage – while it does affect supply needs directly is often a less critical sin than the spectre of food shortages.
  8. The authors are harsh on livestock, especially ruminant agriculture, though avoided the too-simplistic approach of total elimination sometimes recommended by others. That’s not likely to happen, for reasons that the authors discuss. That said I believe that the authors have over-looked three considerations in their call for large reductions in ruminant agriculture.
    • While authors discuss at some length the implications of grazing, or not, of grassland and potentially grazable grasslands like savannah and thin forests, they largely overlook the benefits of perennial forage crop species in arable crop rotations. A further shift away usage of perennial forage usage in favour of more annual crops like grains, oilseeds and pulse crops would be negative for soil quality with long-term effects on crop-soil productivity. With some types of agriculture (notable organic), the cessation of ruminant agriculture would mean drastic effects on production and productivity.
    • Methane emissions are the main reason why ruminant agriculture is considered worse for GHG emissions compared to other classes of livestock and plant-based alternatives. However, missing is recognition that methane, because of its relatively short atmospheric existence (half-life ~10 years) is different from CO2 and N2O that last much longer. There is growing recognition that this must be considered in future analyses of ruminant contribution to climate change, even if the scientific community does not yet agree on how to so this in calculations. Note that it is different with N2O from livestock manure. Manure is an important source of N2O, but its elimination would mean a correspondingly larger supply of N2O from other sources of nitrogen fertilizer.
    • Thirdly, though I may have missed this, I don’t think the authors address the fate of grasslands if marked reductions occur in grazing by ruminant agriculture. My guess is that one result would be more grazing by wild animals – including ruminants like deer.
  9. The authors devote one chapter to plant breeding with a quick overview of technologies available and a projection of future achievements based on extensions of the past. I am disappointed in their discussion of genetic engineering (transgenics, CRISPR, etc.). The authors note, correctly in my view, that the most significant achievements of plant biotechnology are likely to come from other applications, but then focus virtually all of the subsequent discussion on two current technologies – herbicide tolerance and Bt usage in major commercial crops. There are several pages of discussion about the use and safety of glyphosate (with excessive attention paid, in my view, to a comparatively minute number of studies that report negative effects). Unfortunately, there is essentially nothing in this report about biotech-enhanced drought tolerance, improved nutritional composition (‘Golden Rice’ is not mentioned), disease resistance or tolerance to difficult soils, nitrogen fixation in non-legume species, or enhancements in photosynthetic ability, to list but a few of the opportunities now under intensive current investigation. The authors state that biotech usage to date is dominated by large companies but fail to note that this is almost entirely the result of lobbying by NGOs and their allies in European governments. It is not because of inherent difficulties in using/exploiting these technologies per se, or their relative risks to health and environment as compared to other widely used technologies such as genetic mutation created by exposure to radiation or mutagenic chemicals. In a later chapter in the report, the authors highlight “breakthough technologies” but with only the scantiest reference to use of biotechnology in plant breeding. Very strange, in my view.  If I’d been writing a report on how to produce more food in 2050 while producing fewer GHG emissions, I’d likely have devoted half the report to improvements through genetics and plant breeding. But we all have our biases, World Resources Institute writers included.
  10. The report is very negative on biofuels, recommending a complete elimination of their usage. Their argument is based on calculations of effects of biofuels on total food supply and on the assumption that biofuels means increased losses of organic carbon from soils and forests. If one assumes a fixed amount of photosynthetic production by global agriculture, the usage of some of this for biofuels means less for food. That’s inarguable. But this neglects how biofuel development occurred, at least in the case of ethanol from corn in North America. Steady increases in corn yields over recent decades, thanks to plant breeding and other technologies, has meant major increases in grain corn production per hectare or nation relative to more traditional usage needs, such as food and feed usage and exports. Ethanol production/usage has helped to use that increased supply. Increases in corn acreage increase, to the extent that they have occurred, have come at the expense of other lower-yielding arable annual crops such as wheat, and not from the cultivation of former rangeland or forests. WRI argues that the increased supply provided by biofuel elimination should be used to produce food for consumption in other countries or through a reversion of former Midwest cornfields to forests and grasslands. The WRI analyses ignores effects on farm family and rural community viability. Note that my analysis does not apply to biofuel production everywhere. What’s right for Iowa or Southern Ontario is not necessarily right for other continents – and vice versa.

I want to close this critique on the positive. I was especially impressed with the depth of the discussion in the WRI report on the potential (likely limited) for sequestering carbon in agricultural soils. The discussion on nitrous oxide from synthetic fertilizer and manure usage, and methane from manure, is detailed and very informative, even if oriented mainly to developed countries like the United States. (India, as an example, has three times more cattle than the USA.)

The report provides a very useful resource for organizations and governments developing strategies to produce much more food by 2050 while reducing GHG emissions substantially. This applies even if readers/users do not follow the specific recommendations provided. Congratulations to the authors.