Farm group wants climate at forefront of COVID-19 recovery

Farmers for Climate Solutions says farmers should lead the way in providing solutions

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A coalition of farm organizations, including several in Ontario, is calling for a Canada-wide recovery plan from the COVID-19 pandemic that puts a strong emphasis on agricultural resilience to climate change.

A report released recently by Farmers for Climate Solutions (FCS) — members of which include the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO), National Farmers Union, Organic Council of Ontario, and the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association, among others – includes recommendations such as supporting the adoption of battery-electric farm equipment, incentives for diversified crop rotations and land naturalization, and publicly funded agrology services as a way to avoid influence from crop input manufacturers.

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Why it matters: There is likely to be funding for climate change mitigation in pandemic recovery programs and a plan for the agriculture sector could help it receive some of that funding.

Building resilience to climate change, “must be the subtext for Canada’s COVID-19 recovery efforts in agriculture,” the group says.

“We don’t want to recreate or rebuild the same systems and processes that we relied on before the pandemic,” says EFAO president Brent Preston, a Creemore-area vegetable and mixed farmer who serves on the FCS coordinating committee.

The FCS report outlines a number of “vulnerabilities” revealed in Canada’s food system as a result of the pandemic, including COVID-19 outbreaks at processing plants and labour-intensive farms, and produce left to rot or be discarded due to fractured distribution and/or processing supply chains. The organization argues, though, that “the biggest impacts (of climate change) threaten to arrive quickly, unless we change course.”

“The way we see it, this is kind of a dress rehearsal for the kind of crises we’ll see in the future in the food and agriculture sectors, as a result of changing climate,” Preston commented. He says the group started the report before the pandemic.

When it became clear the federal government would focus much of its attention on COVID-19 recovery, some elements of the research were put on hold so FCS’s efforts could be streamlined to target only strategies that might fit into the government’s focus.

For example, Preston says, “the public reaction in the months after the pandemic, in terms of support for local food and finding out more about where and how food is produced, was very encouraging. So we wanted to build on that momentum and build on that goodwill.”

The report argues that Canada’s agricultural sector has, so far, “seriously lagged in its climate response,” and recommends the government take the opportunity of the COVID-19 recovery to build climate resilience. “Now is the time to support farmers to adopt low-emission, high-resilience approaches that benefit farmers and provide ecological goods and services such as clean water, air, biodiversity, and renewable energy,” the report says.

Preston says it’s also important the recovery maintains profitability on Canadian farms.

FCS stands apart from some other major Canadian farm organizations in calling for a more strict adherence to reducing fossil fuel consumption.

“The carbon price as well as multiple other public supports encourage a transition to renewables in Canada,” the new report states. But “the agriculture sector is exempt from carbon pricing in many ways” and “the pace of energy transition in agriculture is slow.”

FCS concedes there have been “calls to increase (farm) sector exemptions from the carbon price” but the new report urges the opposite. “COVID-19 should not sideline efforts to reduce greenhouse gases and meet climate commitments.”

Regarding low-emission and battery-driven farm machinery, FCS calls for “government-funded research and development efforts in collaboration with Canadian tractor and machinery makers: incentives for early adopters, programs to increase awareness of the benefits of battery-electric machinery, and production and sales mandates requiring that some minimum percentage of new tractors sold be battery-electric by a certain date.”

And for business risk management programs, FCS cites programs in Iowa and Prince Edward Island in advocating for premium discounts for farmers who undertake practices shown to decrease climate risk.

“The current BRM programs do not incentivize risk-reducing behaviours,” the new report argues, “and in fact, some encourage risk-increasing behaviours or encourage practices that reduce environmental performance.”

The concept of discounts for those who mitigate against climate risks is not new, the report notes. “Financial institutions and insurance companies in most other sectors are increasingly accounting for climate risks in investments and premium prices, in order to fuel the transition to a stable and sustainable economy while remaining financially viable.”

According to Preston, the report was written predominantly with government – and its funding allocation decision-makers – in mind, although he encourages farmers and other ag-sector stakeholders to also have a look. Following its launch, it was sent to all federal ministries involved in the COVID-19 “green recovery.” Already, FCS representatives have met with the federal agriculture minister and have a planned meeting with the environment minister.

The next step is reaching out to specialists in carbon cycling and soil regeneration to put quantifiable numbers to the organization’s recovery strategies – something government representatives have told them would be helpful. And they also want to build relationships with other farm organizations, including mainstream groups with opposing views on such topics as carbon taxes.

Preston stresses that FCS doesn’t aim to be seen as a “radical” organization compared to mainstream groups, but rather to present ideas that could potentially gather support as the understanding of climate change evolves. He noted that ideas like 4R Nutrient Stewardship and putting a strong focus on soil health may have been seen as well outside the mainstream several years ago, but are now widely accepted in Canada’s agrifood sector.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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