Letter to PM about meeting Paris Agreement commitments

March 14, 2016
 
The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, P.C., M.P.
Prime Minister of Canada
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON  K1A 0A6
 
 
Dear Prime Minister:
 
RE: Meeting Canada’s Paris Agreement commitments in tackling climate change and transitioning to a low carbon economy
 
The National Farmers Union (NFU) supports Canada’s commitment to undertake action to keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
 
Farmers are on the front lines of climate change, as we are among those who most depend upon a favourable climate and weather conditions to earn a livelihood. We need climate stability to produce our crops, raise our livestock and maintain the health of our agriculture ecosystem – and to provide the food Canadians eat.  We are also in a position to make significant impact on Canada’s carbon footprint by changing our agricultural practices. Both adaptation and mitigation are required for agriculture to play its part in preventing catastrophic climate change and for food production and farmer livelihoods to be maintained into the increasingly uncertain climate future. 
 
The scenarios for climate chaos are many. Fear and denial are common responses. But let us face our situation squarely and take action. We envision a climate-friendly future that embodies democratic values, health, and justice. To create such a future, Canada must intentionally confront and change power relationships – we cannot simply rely upon market mechanisms and technology.
 
The NFU calls for food and agriculture policies that promote fair livelihoods for farmers, farm workers and people involved in the food processing system. We need agriculture policies that allow farmers to stay on the land and that allow them to use agronomic practices that support long‐term soil health and water quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the production of nutritious, wholesome food, and which support high standards of animal welfare. We need to ensure that farming is an attractive vocation for young people to enter, and that older farmers can retire with dignity. Our agriculture policy needs to support a diversity of types and sizes of farming, so that our food system has the resilience required to survive in an increasingly unpredictable climate. Such a forward‐looking food and climate policy will also ensure that our rural communities remain viable and attractive places where Canadians can raise families and live fulfilling, productive lives. To achieve these goals, we need to put our food and farmers first while upholding the right of other countries to take care of their own people in the same way.
 
Climate justice will require Canada to abandon its focus on maximizing trade in agriculture commodities and instead adopt food sovereignty as its primary policy goal. This means food and agriculture policy must be designed to secure the ability for Canadian farmers to provide wholesome food for people.  It must foster the growth of knowledge and skills regarding food production and preparation.  It must work with nature, provide decent livelihoods for food providers, localize production and democratize control of the food system.
 
Trade-oriented agriculture policy has simultaneously increased food miles and GHG emissions and made our food system more brittle. Canadian consumers eat more food produced in other countries than ever before. Farm income has not benefited from higher exports. Commodity prices and export markets are buffeted by volatile foreign exchange rates and political events we cannot control. Trade agreements such as CETA and TPP not only accelerate these dangerous trends, but also constrain Canada’s ability to implement climate-friendly public policy. We should not exacerbate the uncertainty of our future climate with unnecessary risks that result from dependence on imports for most of our food and selling a narrow range of agriculture commodities into volatile foreign markets.
 
The Paris Agreement provides direction regarding how countries are to put their GHG reduction and climate adaptation commitments into action. Points that are particularly relevant to agriculture include:
  • implementing adaptation and mitigation in a manner that does not threaten food production;
  • setting economy-wide emissions targets;
  • recognizing the importance of integrated, holistic and balanced non-market approaches to mitigation and adaptation;
  • recognizing that the greater the mitigation, the lower the requirements for adaptation;
  • adaptation action should include traditional knowledge and indigenous peoples’ knowledge as well as Western science;
  • building the resilience of socioeconomic and ecological systems;
  • minimizing losses and damage due to acute and slow onset impacts of climate change; and
  • noting countries’ leadership includes a significant role of public funds in mobilizing climate action strategies.
Many of these points are in conflict with the terms of the TPP and CETA. These trade agreements would enrich global corporations in the short term, but would seriously impair Canada’s ability to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Stabilizing the climate is the most important duty of our generation, and our actions -- or failure to act -- will have long-term consequences. Thus, it is imperative for Canada to choose Paris over the trade deals.
 
It has been suggested that a cap and trade carbon market could pay farmers for sequestering carbon in soils. However, there are serious concerns about this approach. Carbon sequestration in soils is temporary and has limits – it can easily be released back into the atmosphere. This could result in a financial debt if farmers were asked to repay their past credits and/or failure to accomplish the task of balancing emissions with carbon sinks. A legitimate market would require independent third parties to accurately measure soil carbon additions and losses. This is both difficult and expensive, and would divert needed resources from action. Finally, a cap and trade carbon market would primarily benefit the financial sector by providing a new type of derivative to trade. Direct funding of effective mitigation and adaptation measures for agriculture that will also build soil carbon and reduce GHG emissions (including methane and nitrous oxide, not just CO2) would be a better use of limited resources.
 
Canadian farms are the middle link in a food production chain with powerful input supplies on one side and powerful processors and retailers on the other.  If a carbon tax system is implemented, corporations that are upstream of farmers will likely use their market power to pass carbon taxes forward to the farm level in the form of higher input costs. Those downstream from the farmers will likely pass carbon taxes back to family farmers in the form of lower grain and livestock prices.  Thus, farmers would be forced to pay the carbon taxes from every link in the chain, intensifying the cost-price squeeze that is already harming farm incomes to the extent that approximately 80% of family farm income is now obtained through off-farm jobs.
 
The same powerful actors that can off-load carbon taxes onto farmers have also constructed the energy-intensive structure of Canadian agriculture. Farmers protested when grain companies and railways took out country elevators and tore up branch line tracks, forcing farmers to use less energy efficient trucking to move grain longer distances. Local fruit and vegetable production has been hampered by food retailers and manufacturers that increasingly centralize food processing and distribution within Canada, or move it to countries with lower costs and lax regulations. These are only a few examples of large-scale changes farmers have resisted and which have also increased the food system’s energy intensity.
 
In the short term, farmers cannot respond to carbon taxes by significantly changing the energy use on their farms or in the food system.  But in the medium and long term, farmers, working with governments and citizens, want to dramatically restructure the food system to cut emissions and create a more local, more sustainable food system.
 
The Paris Agreement recognizes the special challenges of developing a climate-friendly economy while ensuring sustainable food production. Carbon policies need to be carefully designed to ensure that they are both fair and effective.
 
The NFU is keenly interested in being a leader in the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. We are working across Canada on a detailed research project and policy plan to identify ways to reduce farm and food system GHG emissions. Results and recommendations will be published in early 2017. We also have many members already putting low-carbon production into action on their own farms. We seek to share our knowledge and experience as a resource for policy makers as we embark on this important journey.
 
As the Brazilian popular educator Paolo Friere said, “We make the road by walking.”
 
Sincerely,
 
Jan Slomp
President, National Farmers Union
 
CC:        Hon. Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change
              Hon. Rona Ambrose, Leader of the Opposition
              Hon. Thomas Mulcair, NDP Leader
              Rhéal Fortin, Interim Leader, Bloc Québécois
              Elizabeth May, MP, Green Party Leader
              Provincial Premiers