By Melisa Luymea
This month, can we talk about greenhouse gas and climate change? As I’m writing this, I’m cramming for a panel discussion at the Canadian Alliance for Net-Zero Agri-food event that is … tomorrow, eek!
And if you’re already feeling angry after the first sentence, please keep reading. Because if you’ve heard about GHGs and climate change before, there is a good chance it was framed as the end of the world, with cow toots as the problem and only farmers to blame. And that is simply not true.
The issue is complex and there is a lot of disinformation out there, so it makes sense that this issue would be hijacked by other agendas and that farmers would feel defensive.
Let’s start with a few deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out.
And let’s remember that farmers are not anti-science. We love science, we use it every day.
So, what does the research actually say? According to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), agriculture is responsible for only five per cent of Ontario’s GHG emissions. Agriculture is behind transportation (32 per cent), buildings (25 per cent), and industry and manufacturing (23 per cent) and others. And our GHG emissions have been going down over the last 20 years.
I bet that is not what you were expecting from ECCC, eh?
On top of that, there is a huge team of really smart scientists that have our backs and are working to solve the issues of GHGs in agriculture. Last week, I got to hear about Dr. Christine Baes’ research lab at the University of Guelph and how they are working to select for dairy cows that have higher feed conversion rates AND produce less methane.
I’ve chatted with Dr. Andrew VanderZaag at Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC) about his findings that acidifying a manure pit to a pH of 6.3 reduces methane emissions by 89 per cent. University of Guelph’s Dr. Claudia Wagner-Riddle measured that simply emptying a manure pit fully reduces methane emissions by 55 per cent. And less methane emissions from manure means more carbon going back to the fields.
There is also incredible research into electric tractors, solar-powered robots, cover crops, precision tillage and precision fertilizers. And water management too! I just spent a few hours listening to Iowa State University’s Dr. Mike Castellano’s research that demonstrates how drainage reduces nitrous oxide emissions by 50 per cent and controlled drainage would also drastically improve nitrogen efficiency.
Oh, maybe I should back up a bit. What are these greenhouse gases? For starters, they are natural, and they are necessary; they absorb heat, forming a cozy blanket in our Earth’s atmosphere. These gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) mainly. But they aren’t created equally. Methane holds about 25 times more heat than CO2 but only stays up there for 12 years or so. Nitrous oxide, on the other hand, holds nearly 300 times more heat than CO2 and stays in the atmosphere for over a century.
Over time, these gases are accumulating, and the blanket is getting thicker, as it were. There is consensus among scientists that the elevated levels of these gases have impacted global temperatures and will continue to influence long-term climate patterns. Obviously, climate and weather impacts farmers, so it is critical that agriculture stays at the table.
Another good reason to stay in the conversation is that, while Ontario agriculture may only be a small part of the problem, it can be a huge part of the solution. Ontario’s soils can hold more carbon than they currently do, and more carbon in the soil also means less nitrogen input requirements, more water holding capacity to withstand drought, more biology and faster nutrient cycling, etc. All good things.
As we know, carbon gets into the soil through living roots, manure and organic amendments, reducing soil disturbance, and all of the practices that were promoted through the On-Farm Climate Action Fund (OFCAF). And there is likely to be many more federal, provincial and private funding opportunities in the future. That may even include getting paid for these practices through a carbon market.
But all of these climate-smart farming opportunities mean nothing if Ontario farmers are convinced that climate change is a hoax.
I get that farmers should be skeptical; we have seen political agendas swing back and forth over time and, in Ontario, many may not be experiencing the drastic weather changes predicted. As well, this issue is deeply personal, impacting livelihoods and cultural norms in rural areas, and it would be easier if it weren’t real. But most concerning in my opinion, is that the media has polarized this issue. And not just social media but also some of our agricultural media has done a disservice by spreading disinformation.
Why should our own agricultural leaders get us all fired up against the public, politicians and scientists, when these are the very people who are investing their time and money into solutions for agriculture. This is a difficult situation, but I still see a lot of hope for good change and for farmers to emerge as the superheroes they are.
This is the time to be at the table, and that’s where I’m going to be tomorrow. Wish me luck! ◊