National | Opinion

Canada needs climate change agency

We are in a climate emergency. To slow warming and stabilize the climate, Canada has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 — just 28 years from now. This will be a tremendous challenge.

Moreover, reducing agricultural emissions is one of the most complex GHG-reduction tasks facing Canada. Here’s why. Most sectors can focus on just one GHG: carbon dioxide. But agricultural emissions are split between three GHGs: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.

In other sectors, there is often one main source of emissions (such as combustion in engines) but agricultural GHGs emerge via diverse pathways including animal digestion, fertilizer use and manure handling.

In other sectors, emission reduction can be straightforward (replace conventional cars with electric vehicles) but on-farm actions are specific to farm type, size, and place, meaning solutions for a Manitoba grain farm will be different than those for a British Columbia dairy, for instance.

Finally, in many sectors, changes can be made at just a few firms but Canada has more than 200,000 farms, each needing to understand their particular emissions and implement specific solutions.

Here’s the most important part: the challenges, large today, will increase with each passing year.

Over the next three decades, we must transition to a low-emission economy. Farmers and governments are at the beginning of a multi-decade undertaking during which pressure for ever-larger emissions cuts will intensify, with each round of reductions more challenging than the one before.

Federal and provincial departments of agriculture are at the beginning of decades of ever-expanding work and need to build significant capacity.

To create that capacity, we need a Canadian Farm Resilience Agency (CFRA). Drawing on the lessons of the successful and respected Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, but updated for the 21st century, a CFRA could lead and co-ordinate emissions reduction, resilience building, climate adaptation, data collection, research, education and outreach.

Just as the creation of the PFRA was the right policy response to the challenges of the 1930s, the creation of a CFRA is the right response as we move toward 2030 and beyond.

A CFRA could be a super PFRA, with an expanded mandate and designed to operate across Canada. A CFRA could provide an important presence in the countryside and lead long-term, integrated thinking and research to help chart a path for agriculture as we move toward the net-zero-emission Canada of 2050.

Specifically, a CFRA could:

  • Hire, train and deploy public servant agrologists (independent of input sellers) to help farmers to optimize fertilizer use; find alternatives to purchased inputs; take other measures to reduce emissions; and connect with government programs and access incentives.
  • Create a network of demonstration farms to refine and showcase low-emission production techniques and serve as hubs where researchers, farmers, and others can meet to develop solutions.
  • Provide comprehensive soil testing to support fertilizer-rate optimization and to maximize soil health, carbon sequestration and soil organic matter gains, thus aiding water retention, flood mitigation and drought resilience.
  • Collect data, assist in GHG measurement, verify research findings and model results, and document farmers’ adoption of beneficial management practices.
  • Work with farmers to protect and restore wetlands, grasslands and treed areas.
  • Provide tree seedlings to support afforestation, silvopastures, tree rows and shelterbelts and provide seed for grassland restoration.
  • Manage land set-aside and permanent-cover programs.
  • Re-establish community pastures and create strategic feed reserves.

A CFRA is urgently needed as a way to support farmers as we transition to low-emission, climate-compatible production systems.