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Canadian farmers facing new sustainability era

When U.S. president-elect Joe Biden picked California environmental champion Kamala Harris for his running mate, there was no doubt a Democratic Party victory would have implications for agriculture everywhere, including Canada.

That was reinforced last week when Biden announced his choice for secretary of agriculture would be Tom Vilsack – the same person who held the post under former president Barack Obama and helped Biden fashion his rural America plan.

Biden wants U.S. farmers to reach new highs in sustainability. To him, that means paying attention to their impact on climate change.

He’s been listening to someone (likely Vilsack) who knows something about agriculture. For example, in announcing Vilsack as the agriculture secretary nominee, Biden said he wanted to pay farmers to “put their land in conservation… and grow cover crops.”

I think he stumbled a bit on his verbiage, but Biden’s point is clear. He thinks farmers have a big role to play in decreasing global warming by covering their land in crops that reduce run-off into waterways and sequester carbon.

And, as he noted, he plans to help them financially to do so.

That’s a model the European Union adopted more than three decades ago, and consumers there supported it wholly. European governments wanted farmers to produce less grain because there was too much on the world market: prices were depressed and trade wars were being waged over it. The powers that be figured paying farmers to take land out of production and make it look like a conservation effort was the way to go.

Here, we talk about removing what’s known as marginal land from production. It’s land that’s not really suited for crops, but because the price of food is so comparatively low and farmers need every cent they can muster, they’re tempted to grow crops there anyway.

It’s much better if farmers grow grass on marginal land and turn it into pasture for cattle, which nature likely intended it to be in the first place. This land doubles as a wildlife refuge, because it typically has wet, low-lying areas and brush that harbours the likes of birds and foxes.

So maybe Biden means something similar when he refers to farmers putting land in conservation, although livestock farmers who pasture their animals already put land in conservation.

In Canada, we’re struggling with what to do about carbon. Ottawa’s approach is to tax those who produce it and use it, through a carbon tax, and offer incentives to those who reduce it, as carbon credits.

Agriculture has a problem with that. Some farmers think they shouldn’t have to pay a carbon tax on the natural gas they use to dry their grain, a step which is often necessary for storage.

In fact, they think Ottawa should take the same approach Biden is taking. They think they should be recognized, through compensation, for sequestering carbon, which they do in the crops they grow (especially pasture). They are on the exact opposite side of where the government is now.

Things got worse last Friday when Ottawa announced its new federal climate plan, which further increases the carbon tax.

It predicts agriculture will use appreciably more carbon in the coming years. And it says it’s trying to help slow that use down.

The government dedicated money to help agriculture develop “clean transformative technologies” and help restore wetlands and grasslands in ways that boost carbon sequestration. It’s also dedicating money to biofuel development.

Farm groups, however, say all this ignores the efforts they’re making right now.

Under Biden, the U.S. will take a fresh look at its trading partners through a sustainability lens, and pass judgement on what it considers to be their level of their environmental responsibility. If it doesn’t like what it sees, it will do business elsewhere.

Ottawa will hold out the new climate plan as being environmentally responsible. It might convince the U.S. government, but it has a long way to go before farmers buy in.

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