Agriculture feeds the world but we need honesty about its impact

Environment | Gregory Beatty

Food is big news these days. For 18 months now, consumers have been hammered by unrelenting food inflation which has strained household budgets and forced many to seek out food banks, soup kitchens and community fridges for relief.

At the same time, global food production is stressed by a stream of weather calamities including droughts, heat domes, floods and destructive storms.

Climate change is the driver there. And as we struggle to address that looming reality, plus deal with a spiralling biodiversity and wildlife habitat crisis, farming, ranching and other sectors of the food industry are coming under increased scrutiny.

As they should.

Overall, food production is responsible for about 26 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the full food cycle, remember, so it covers everything from the initial growing and raising of the raw product to transportation, processing and retail sale. That includes grains, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables, along with beef and other livestock, and even fish in some instances.

Every step of the way, energy is expended and GHGs emitted — carbon dioxide from diesel fuel mostly, but also nitrous oxide from fertilizer and methane from cattle.

There’s significant waste, too. In Canada, it’s estimated to be as much as 40 per cent of total production, says Glenn Wright.

Wright — who farms 800 acres near Saskatoon — is vice-president of policy with the National Farmers Union.

“Capitalism has turbo-charged us to produce and consume as much as possible,” he says. “But if we’re going to do anything to address our environmental crisis, the number one thing has to be reducing our impact.

“And that, to me, means reducing waste and being as efficient as possible.”

Denial & Delusion

To survive in that “turbo-charged” world, which is dominated by an increasingly small number of mega food corps and retailers (witness U.S.-based Bunge’s recent $34 billion merger with Saskatchewan-based Viterra), producers are frantically bidding up the price of land to expand their holdings and spending more on inputs to boost yield.

NFU statistics show fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use has doubled in the last 20 years. It’s a strategy that export-obsessed governments in agrarian regions such as Saskatchewan and Alberta enthusiastically endorse.

But it’s putting tremendous strain on producers (and the environment), says Saskatchewan author and naturalist Trevor Herriot.

“With any effort to protect Saskatchewan’s southern prairie ecozone, you have to look at the larger context of what’s happening with land prices, and how that’s driving producers to what they call ‘cultivating corner to corner’ where they take every inch of their land and make it pay,” he says.

“The equipment is so large too, that they don’t want to have to steer around any landscape features whether it’s an aspen bluff, wetland or patch of prairie grass,” says Herriot. “So they get rid of it all.”

Wright echoes that concern.

“When you’re a big operation, you’re driven by a management structure that treats everything like numbers,” says Wright. “When it’s time to go, you go. You’re desiccating crops so you can harvest them. We don’t have time to wait for things to turn with temperature. If it’s too moist, you take it off tough and then dry it. It’s the industrial farm complex.”

Despite being among climate change’s earliest victims, many producers, ensnared as they are in Wright’s industrial farm complex, remain climate change sceptics. Worse, their denial and delusion are stoked by the (conservative) politicians they so fervidly support at election time.

Saskatchewan is a prime example, says Wright.

“With our provincial government, we’re routinely fed the mantra that we’re an export economy, and that the world needs our food, fuel and fertilizer. They keep telling producers and their rural base what they want to hear, that we’re probably already net zero, so we don’t need to do anything to improve because we’re doing this service to the world.” [See sidebar]

Yes, Saskatchewan is an important source of food, fuel and fertilizer. But we’re also a notoriously high emitter of GHGs, especially on a per capita basis, but even in absolute terms. At 75 million tonnes per year, for example, our emissions exceed those of Nordic countries Sweden and Finland combined (population: 15 million).

The government argument that we’re already net zero in agriculture simply doesn’t hold water, says Herriot.

“When it comes to the sequestration of carbon, the emperor is naked on parade with that one, because we’re not accounting for the full climate change impacts,” he says.

“Sure, zero till stores more carbon than the old summerfallow system, which actually released carbon. But the machines producers use cost a lot to manufacture and run, and then there’s the habitat destruction that results where they’re constantly burning aspen bushes and getting rid of wetlands that were storing carbon,” he says.

Despite the ever-mounting evidence of climate change and the devastating impact it’s having on agriculture — highlighted this year by cross-Canada wildfires that have greatly compromised air quality for rural and city folk alike; and in southwest Saskatchewan and Alberta, yield-crippling drought — the government’s anti-climate rhetoric still finds a ready audience, says Wright.

“My sense is that the polarization is becoming more entrenched. The people who still think the climate crisis is a hoax, or that it’s just a natural process and there’s nothing we can do, and this is nothing more than a tax grab, seem to be becoming more and more entrenched,” he says.

House of Cards

While primary producers are a big part of the food industry, they areonly one part. And the global food corps they market to, such as General Mills, Nestlé and Unilever, don’t necessarily have the same c’est la vie attitude to climate change. Instead, they’ve been pushing producers to develop a code of sustainability, says Wright.

“The beef producers got in line early, recognizing that their customers want to know their beef is sustainably produced. It’s not regulatory from the government or binding on producers. It’s kind of a code of practice where they make a commitment to their customers, because their customers want to reduce their emissions,” he says.

“Dairy has been going further and faster than cash crops, too,” says Wright. “We have to recognize that the emissions intensity of our food is going to become a metric that we have to track and improve on.”

Don’t misunderstand. These mega-corps aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. Just like they’re pushing producers to become more sustainable, they’re facing pressure from climate-forward markets in Europe and other progressive jurisdictions to become more sustainable themselves.

Yet conservative politicians still push their mantra. You’ve got Pierre Poilievre saying, ‘Elect us, we’re going to scrap the expensive carbon tax’,” says Wright.

“Again, he’s telling farmers what they want to hear. That totally ignores what is happening in international markets. The European Union just signed an agreement to talk about carbon adjustment tariffs at the border. Imports that come into that market from a place that has no pollution pricing will be subject to tariffs,” says Wright.

“Some people say with our current agricultural system, we’ve built an ecological house of cards,” says Herriot. “It’s going to implode at some point, when you’re so dependent on fossil fuels, fertilizer and chemicals, and massive machinery that drives people off the land and concentrates it into fewer and fewer hands.”

Remember, this is food we’re talking about. Which is about as essential to life as it gets. And having our current agricultural system collapse, as it’s arguably already started to do, is not a comforting thought.

Over the last few decades, as people have migrated from rural areas to cities and global trade in food products has expanded, we’ve marginalized agriculture, says Herriot.

“It’s something a small number of people do out in the boonies, and they don’t get a lot of respect from urban people who dismiss them as hicks,” Herriot says. “They need to have our respect and honour, but we need more of them out there taking care of the land,” he says.

“I don’t have a solution for how we get there, but any sane civilization will have healthy, sustainable agriculture at the centre,” he says. ■


Embracing the Future

The “arguments” that fossil fuel interests use to dismiss and downplay climate change are endless. One they sometimes trot out is that climate change will be positive for prairie food production by extending the growing season and opening new lands in the north to cultivation.

The latter only goes so far, though. The further north you go, the less sunlight you get. And sunlight is what fuels photosynthesis to help plants grow and produce their bounty. Soils are subpar too, so even more fertilizer and chemicals will be needed to farm them.

Meanwhile, forecasts suggest the current prairie farm belt could experience more extreme heat and drought that could see sections (especially in the south and west) revert to semi-arid desert — as British explorer James Palliser found when he visited the area in 1859.

Even where water is plentiful, wetlands are drained at alarming rate to maximize crop acres, and runoff from fertilizer and chemicals pollutes the lakes and rivers that communities rely on for drinking water and wildlife habitat.

“I’ve heard it said that the climate crisis is a crisis of culture — and thus of imagination,” says farmer Glenn Wright, who also does environmental advocacy with the National Farmers Union and Saskatchewan Environmental Society.

“Most farmers can not yet imagine a way to do their big grain farming without diesel fuel and fertilizer,” he says. “Thankfully, we do have solutions.”

Wright doesn’t just talk the talk. He also walks the walk. On his own farm, he’s installed solar panels to generate green energy and converted an old pick-up truck to electric. Next up, he says, is an electric tractor. And since 2008, he’s heated (and cooled) his farmhouse with a heat pump.

On the crop side, he’s experimented with intercropping, where he seeds different crop mixes to take advantage of synergies between plants to fix nitrogen in the soil and protect against pest and weed infestations — all in a bid to reduce fuel, fertilizer and chemical use.

“I’ve had good success with lentils, canola and alfalfa planted together,” says Wright. “I’ve tried oats and peas, camelina and oats, but you only get one chance a year to grow a crop, so you only get so many kicks at the can.”

Rather than leave it to producers to experiment, Wright would like to see more public research into intercropping to help farmers break out of the monoculture rut they’re in now. And while he’s dismayed at how the debate over climate change and biodiversity has become politicized, he remains hopeful.

“I fully expect there will be genetic engineering and plant breeding that leads to perennial cereal crops. If you can plant an oat or wheat crop that grows for multiple years, we could harvest that without having nearly as many emissions. And maybe we’ll see cereal crops that have the ability to fix their own nitrogen,” he says.

“There are many things we could be doing, and I think it’s shameful that the current government is saying, ‘We’re already doing what we need to do. We don’t have to do anything more to become sustainable in agriculture,’” he says.