A funny thing happened on the way to carbon pricing in Canada. What looked like smooth sailing has run into some very turbulent waters. Farmers, for example, are raising serious questions about its practicality, effectiveness, fairness, and cost.
One concern is the lack of clarity when discussing agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Various agriculture segments are often lumped together, even though they may have very different carbon footprints. This habit of lumping things together can create numbers that are sensational but not necessarily meaningful. ‘25% of all anthropomorphic climate change is a direct result of agriculture and forestry.’ How is such a vague statement anything other than inflammatory? It certainly isn’t helpful.
For instance, livestock that are fed grain will not have the same footprint as livestock finished on grass and perennial crops. Corn and wheat have different environmental impacts. When photosynthesis is measured by satellite it would seem the actual ‘lungs of the planet’ are the corn fields of Iowa, not the old growth forest of the Amazon basin. The practicality of basing a carbon pricing strategy on such poorly understood science should indeed be questioned.
Scientists are beginning to fully understand how much carbon is being sequestered in soils by farmers. There is evidence that reductions in summer fallow and new farming methods are improving soil health and increasing soil organic matter. In other words, the depletion of the soil which began with the first plowing has been reversed in recent years, and farms are now on a more sustainable footing. If pricing carbon acts as a deterrent to this trend, it will be worse than ineffective, it will be disastrous.
There is a long shadow in Canada of poorly conceived energy policies. These have strained interprovincial relations and limited economic growth. Some see carbon pricing as déjà vu all over again. They suspect that urban dwellers will benefit from increased economic activity and jobs while farmers will be forced to foot the bill.
Many farmers are also skeptical about the doom and gloom scenarios so common today. At the same time, because farmland sequesters huge amounts of carbon, farmers want to be considered part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Most do not want a cheque for what they do but would like to be left alone to farm in a sustainable manner, and not be harassed by yet another costly program based on incomplete science. They worry that expensive, ineffective onerous policies will be put in place, not because they are scientifically proven, but because they are popular.
And that is an inconvenient truth that should worry us all.