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We can help the climate crisis as well as the farm crisis

We can help the climate crisis as well as the farm crisis

A farmer processes hay into round bales on a farm near Maryhill in 2019.

The climate crisis is really hurting Canada’s farmers. Why is it that governments are spending so much public money on the wrong things?

Although we all know that much more is ahead, farmers are already struggling to deal with today’s intense storms and extreme weather. High temperatures can cause severe damage to crops and staff, especially on days when the temperature is already at 30 C by 9 a.m.

Left unchecked, the climate crisis will dramatically deepen the income crisis on Canada’s farms. As the world’s climate scientists reminded us again this month, time is running out.

Climate change is a significant challenge for farming, but it also presents an opportunity. The head of the Ontario Farmers’ Association always used to tell me that agriculture may be 10 per cent of the climate problem, but it can be 20 per cent of the solution.

As the National Farmers Union put itThe solutions to both the climate crisis as well as the farm crisis are nearly identical:

  • Reduce dependence upon high-emission petroindustrial farm inputs
  • Rely on the cycles of nature, the sun’s energy, and the wisdom and knowledge of farm families.

Unfortunately, that’s not what’s been happening, and our governments are largely to blame. Federal, provincial and territorial governments spend an enormous amount of public money supporting farmers through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership — around $3 billion under the current agreement that expires next year. The majority of that money is used to support chemical-based agriculture and little support for climate-smart family agriculture.

As the climate crisis worsens, there is a need for federal, provincial, and territorial governments to shift spending so that farmers can be rewarded for their climate-smart farming practices.

There is a huge opportunity to do it right this week as the key issues of the 2023 to 2030 Canadian Agricultural Partnership are being negotiated. But with climate-hostile governments such as Doug Ford’s at the table, I’m worried that this precious opportunity will be wasted.

The new partnership should be open to farm organizations who want to prioritize healthy soils over chemical pesticides. In 2016, while I was the last Environment Commissioner of Ontario, I delivered a report to the legislature called “Putting Soil Health First — A Climate Smart Idea for Ontario.” As my report showed, healthier soils are better for farmers, the environment and the climate.

A healthy soil can help reverse climate change by taking carbon from the atmosphere. Nature United estimates that 37.4 Mt of CO2 equivalent could be stored in Canada’s agricultural soils with simple management practices such as cover crops, crop rotation, reducing chemical fertilizer and tree planting.

These soils are also more organic and healthier and will retain and absorb more water. This will make them more resilient to climate changes like heat, droughts, floods, and other extreme weather. Healthy soil is free from chemical fertilizers and microorganisms are good for plants. Gut microbiome is also good for people. Thus, healthier soils would be good for farmers’ bottom line, and for anyone who cares about the quality of the food we eat, a genuine win-win-win.

The big petrochemical companies would be the only losers. Will their financial power continue blocking climate action?

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We’ll know if Canada’s agriculture ministers are taking the farm crisis and the climate crisis seriously if these are top of their issues list:

  • Farmland should be used to grow food, not subdivisions or highways.
  • Pay farmers for ecosystem services like protecting wetlands, hedgerows, and other natural resources.
  • Report soil-carbon levels and reward farmers who improve them with lower crop insurance premiums. This will save everyone money since crops with healthier soils are more likely than others to survive. Additionally, climate change is less likely to occur if there is more carbon in the soil.
  • Rebuild the broken system of farm extension specialists so that farmers can get advice not only from chemical salespeople but also from soil health pioneers.
  • Farmers can get a guarantee on yield losses for up 10 years when they switch from chemical to climate-smart or soil health agriculture. This is to compensate for any temporary loss.

  • Low-risk grants can be used to support farmers in their efforts to innovate, so that they can test out the best ways to improve soil health on their farm.

The Canadian Agricultural Partnership is crucial for your future, no matter if you are a farmer. Now is the time to take action, even though the key issues have been negotiated.

How? Ask your MP and MPP to help you build the next climate partnership agreement. It’s too big an opportunity to waste.

Dianne Saxe, former Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, is the deputy leader of the Ontario Green party.




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