The farm voice in Paris

Maybe we really can have an effective voice in global climate-change talks, even if we can’t agree whether climate change is real

Climate change is a divisive topic. People either believe man-based climate change is real and that action must be taken immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or they reject the premise that mankind is responsible for climate change and they argue passionately that action is not only not warranted or needed, but that it also won’t do anything to make our weather better.

Typically, it seems a person’s views are either black or white. There is little grey in climate change.

Yet neither position sits well with Don McCabe, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. He takes a different approach altogether.

“Whether farmers believe in climate change or not,” McCabe says, “they need to have a voice in making the rules. Farmers need to be part of the solution. Ag needs a voice at the table.”

McCabe is that voice for Ontario farmers. Not only has he attended the last three United Nations Conference of the Parties (global climate change conferences), he was a panel member in two events at the breakthrough global meeting in Paris last December called COP21.

McCabe says his role was to bring North American farmers’ needs and solutions to the delegates of the 195 countries represented at that meeting.

It was clear, he says, that there would be policies coming out of that meeting to address climate change. “There will be new rules, and farmers need to have a part in the making of those rules.”

While McCabe acknowledges that agriculture is part of the problem, he sees no conflict in arguing that it can be an even bigger part of the solution.

He points out, for instance, that agriculture is all about the connection between the living and non-living worlds. Farmers understand the carbon and nitrogen cycles that produce the food and fibre the world relies on. They understand soils and the sequestration of carbon in those soils.

McCabe feels agriculture needs to be recognized for what it has already achieved, and farmers need to be given the tools, technologies, and policies to further reduce greenhouse gases and to curb the impact of climate change.

However, McCabe believes there are roadblocks. North American agriculture is unique. Globally, there are half a billion farmers, 70 per cent of whom are women who farm one hectare or less.

Second, the average consumer does not know what farmers do, and there is no time for them to learn.

Third, McCabe is concerned that governments and companies could barge ahead without understanding the impact their actions could have on farmers. Fourth, there will likely be new costs imposed on farmers arising from new policies and regulations, which means that input costs could rise.

McCabe lists a number of things Canadian farmers need to do now:

  • Get familiar with the new terminology
  • Get a grounding on the science
  • Listen to the signals the supply chain is sending
  • Understand what the customer expects
  • Talk about sustainability in a way that is engaging and that the public will listen to
  • Understand what they are being asked to sign on to
  • Stay on top of their businesses

Most importantly, McCabe says government must hear from agriculture. “Farmers must be a part of the solution. It is very important that farm organizations be involved in climate change policy. There is a whole new world in the bio-economy.”

Chris Perry, a fourth-generation farmer from southern Alberta also believes farmers need to look at the big picture.

“Agriculture is an enormous user of energy and resources. We need to be sustainable. We need to define the role ag plays in climate change,” says Perry.

This was the message Perry presented at COP21. Perry was a panel member at the Field to Market Event at the Gallery of Solutions, a side event to the main climate change meetings in Paris last December. The purpose of the event was to inform COP21 participants how agriculture is working to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Perry participated in that panel at the request of Pepsico, a major sponsor of the event. Perry’s farm is a supplier of potatoes, sunflowers and other crops to Pepsico, and the company recognized him as a leader in sustainable agricultural practices in part because of his use of varied crop rotations as well as precision agricultural practices, and also because of his investment in an on-farm biogas production facility. Pepsico wanted him to tell COP21 delegates about his innovative and sustainable farming practices.

Perry admits his motivation for investing in sustainable agriculture is as much altruistic as it is economic. He firmly believes he must leave the land in better shape for future generations than it was when he began farming. That is why he is constantly searching for best practices that he can incorporate.

Pepsico recognizes the increasing desire by consumers for the products they buy to be produced in a sustainable manner. Perry says farmers need to consider this consumer demand as well. “We have to be aware of consumer trends. Farmers have to know who they are selling to and what it is they want.”

Perry says companies like Pepsico want to buy from growers who strive to meet consumer demand for sustainable production. “Companies want to know how sustainable your production system is,” Perry says. “It is not enough to just be compliant; it is what you are doing over and above requirements. It is extremely important both for farmers and food companies to be seen by consumers as the epitome of food.”

Perry also believes it is crucial for farmers to be at the table when climate change is on the agenda. “Agriculture needs to be recognized for what it is doing and what it can do to mitigate climate change,” Perry says. “We have to be on the bandwagon.”

Also sitting on the panel with Perry was Keith Alverson, a farmer from South Dakota and member of the National Corn Growers Association. Alverson spoke of the ability of soils to sequester carbon. He told delegates about South Dakota State University research that shows 60 per cent of their soil’s carbon had been lost between the time when the land was first broken and 1984.

However, with the introduction of no till and other modern farming practices, carbon sequestration in South Dakota soils increased by 24 per cent between 1985 and 2009.

Alverson pointed out modern farming practices can also mitigate some of the problems that climate change could otherwise create for farmers. The sequestration of carbon results in better soil health and promotes higher yields. Zero tillage also helps farmers adapt to the drought and the heavy rains that increase in frequency as a result of climate change.

In a South Dakota Corn Growers’ new release Alverson is quoted as saying: “Corn growers not only have the ability, but an obligation to play a role in the world’s collaborative effort to address climate change. Regardless of your beliefs, the world is getting warmer and farmers need to consider best management practices to improve their soil health, which in turn will benefit the soil and climate for future generations.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was the keynote speaker at the Field to Market Event and he summed up the need for input from agriculture in the development of policy on climate change: “The science is clear: climate change impacts global food security.”

While COP21 likely did nothing to change an individual farmer’s belief whether climate change is real, man-made, natural, or a hoax, it did open the eyes of delegates to the impact agriculture can have on climate and greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of arguing over the premise of climate change, it is time for farmers to unite to meet the demand by the public for actions that reduce the risk of climate change.

Agriculture can provide solutions that consumers are demanding. More than that, there is a market for sustainable agricultural solutions that farmers can capture.

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