As the federal government rolled out the carbon tax April 1, farmers and rural Canadians were understandably irritated. Among the feedback we received was a question that struck me — why don’t farmers get paid to store carbon in the soil? I was a little surprised, because, in at least one province, they do. Alberta has had a carbon exchange and carbon credit system for years, but not many know about it. Why is that?
That question led me to call Rob Saik, agronomist and author and founder of AgriTrend (now owned by Trimble). Saik’s history with quantifying the conservation and building of soil carbon goes back nearly two decades. The science of how to measure soil carbon is complicated, but possible. Paying farmers to store is plausible, but not lucrative. Is there another option?
Saik says the concept of agriculture tracking carbon emission reductions is where we need to go. Full zero-till is not necessarily possible in many regions, but that doesn’t mean incremental emissions reductions (and soil organic matter building) isn’t possible. Whether through reduced nitrogen losses, more efficient livestock production, reduced fuel use, or increased soil carbon, agriculture needs to be measuring its impact and being compensated — or at least not punished, he says.
At a minimum, Saik wants agriculture to be acknowledged for its net-negative carbon footprint. The total carbon system has to be considered not just where a good is produced, but also where it is consumed. To that end, Canada’s huge crop- and protein-export numbers need to be considered — the carbon bill belongs to where the good is consumed, meaning that Canada exports an incredible amount of carbon.
If the industry is viewed as a net-negative emitter, and tallies up all it does to minimize its carbon footprint, perhaps then the industry will, at a minimum, stop being unfairly penalized, Saik says.