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Climate Change and Agriculture

Agriculture and climate change have a messy relationship

On the one hand, agricultural soils can be carbon sinks, playing an important role in climate action by taking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere.

While on the other hand, agriculture can be a significant source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from nutrient use, methane (CH4) from raising livestock, and CO2 from on-farm fuel combustion and managed soils.

The size of the arrow indicates the relative magnitude of the emission or amount sequestered. (Source: Agriculture Agri-Food Canada)

This messiness does not stop there. Agricultural producers are not one homogenous group, all adopting the same practices at the same rate, and agricultural landscapes do not all respond the same to the adoption of practices that have the potential to reduce and sequester greenhouse gas emissions.

Source 

Excluding fossil fuel use, Canadian agriculture accounted for 8.1% or 59 megatonnes of the national greenhouse gas inventory in 2018 according to Canada’s official greenhouse gas inventory.

Canadian agriculture does not only emit carbon dioxide. Canada’s official greenhouse gas inventory reported that agriculture was responsible for 76% of nitrous oxide emissions and 31% of methane emissions in 2018. There are significant opportunities to reduce these emissions by enhancing efficiencies in nitrogen fertilizer use, feed-to-meat conversion ratios, and manure management. For example, by implementing anaerobic digesters on livestock farms methane emissions from manure can be turned into usable biogas, a renewable energy source.

Sink

With proper management, world renowned climate scientists from The Nature Conservancy have found that global forest, wetland, grassland and agricultural lands can provide up to one third of mitigation needed between now and 2030 to keep warming below 2°C. Worldwide, agriculture could absorb up to 6,000 megatonnes of greenhouse gases per year by 2030. However, to realize this potential significant action is needed to advance carbon policies and pricing, and wide spread adoption of best management practices by farmers.

The most widely agreed upon (and lowest cost) options to enable farmland to become a more robust carbon sink include: planting trees around fields, better nutrient management, conservation agriculture (inclusive of reduced tillage and cover cropping), improved animal grazing, and keeping perennial grasslands intact.

 

Map of global farmland that will be available with a changing climate

Climate change to reveal more global farmland at steep environmental cost

The research team modelled prospects for growing major food crops in potential new farmland that may come available as climate change alters growing seasons worldwide.

Building Climate Resilience in Agriculture

Climate resilience is increasingly becoming a key consideration for business risk management for farmers, and requires both adaptation and mitigation.

On-farms, building climate resilience can range from adopting practices that reduce soil loss such as maintaining tree lines between fields or avoiding excessive tilling of fields to implementing flood preventative measures such as tile drainage infrastructure and restoration of wetlands.

Along the supply chain, climate resilience can be built by ensuring strategies and protocols are in place in the incident of an extreme natural disaster that impacts food supplies. It may also include proactively ensuring supply chains are continuously improving on environment, social and economic sustainability metrics to enhance their overall resilience.

Climate Change Adaptation

Climate change adaptation comprises of strategies, actions and knowledge sharing that improves resilience to the impacts of climate change.

The purpose of undertaking agricultural adaptation is to effectively manage potential climate risks over the coming decades as climate change intensifies and environmental conditions become more abnormal compared to historically experienced. In particular, farmers must adapt to changes in water availability, both in the context of flooding and drought, while also evolving as temperatures and seasonality shift and impact the growth cycles of crops.

Feeding Nine Billion Video 6: Climate Change and Food Security

A bison stands on a slope

Adapting agriculture to a changing environment

Remarks delivered by Dr. Evan Fraser to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry regarding the potential impacts of climate change.

Climate Change Mitigation

Climate change mitigation results in the reduction, prevention or sequestration of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change mitigating actions can range from large scale transitions to renewable energy to a farmer planting perennial grasses on marginal annual cropland.

Agriculture can make an important, low-cost contribution to climate change mitigation by increasing soil carbon sinks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and producing renewable energy. To realize this potential, farmers need incentives and support to implement best management practices that can result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and increase soil carbon sequestration. These practices are increasingly being referred to as natural climate solutions. Natural climate solutions are actions that protect and enhance natural carbon sinks, such as forests, croplands and wetlands, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land use, and are co-beneficial to other environmental and societal goals. In agriculture these practices include the adoption of no-till, cover cropping, nitrogen management plans, and avoidance of grassland conversion.

In Canada, Western provinces (especially Alberta and Saskatchewan) have already made significant strides towards turning their agriculture soils from a source of carbon emissions to a carbon sink, and this shift began as early as 1990. However, this achievement is currently being reversed as farmers intensify practices and change production systems (e.g. switch from perennial to annual crops) to meet financial and market pressures.

Dr. Rattan Lal: Arrell Global Food Innovation Award (Research) 2020

A lone tree stands at the fence row of a field representing agro-forestry

The potential of agroforestry to answer climate concerns

The impact of agroforestry on climate change mitigation and adaptation in Canadian agricultural systems has not yet been fully realized.

Solutions and Opportunities

Many different actors from farmers to researchers are innovating to develop solutions to climate change through agriculture, and to identify how agriculture can be a leading sector in providing opportunities to address climate change.

In order to realize the potential of agriculture as a solutions provider to climate change, scaling widespread adoption of natural climate solutions is necessary. Scholars and practitioners alike suggest that this requires robust measuring and monitoring systems, market signals to guide investment and action, and natural climate solution education and capacity development in agricultural communities.

During the 2020 virtual Arrell Food Summit we hosted a session called, “Climate Change Mitigation in Agriculture – a Cornerstone to Green Recovery?”

The focus of session was on how the agriculture sector could be a cornerstone sector of a Green Recovery and in realizing commitments made under Paris Agreement. However, it is evident that we need to better understand the scale of agriculture as a potential source for climate solutions and how best to harness it. The panelists discussed the current understanding of agriculture as a potential solutions provider in climate change mitigation and the steps that need to be taken to scale climate change mitigation actions such as implementing natural climate solutions.

Panelists included, Api’soomaahka (Running Coyote) William Singer III, Kainai/Blood Tribe of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Prof. Keith Paustian, Colorado State University, Gabrielle Bastien, Founder & Executive Director , Regeneration Canada, Shahira Esmail, Director of Global Consulting, Radicle, and Tim Faveri, Vice President, Sustainability & Shared Value, Maple Leaf Foods

Come back to this page soon to view a recording of this session!

Research at the University of Guelph

Soybean grows in a field

Soils at Guelph

Soils at Guelph is an effort to increase awareness of research initiatives, facilitate collaboration and knowledge exchange among stakeholders, and to educate on the importance of soil health.

Cows eat from manger

Breeding Livestock for Climate Resilience

Food from Thought researchers are assessing genetic and molecular traits to identify and breed dairy and beef cattle and sheep resilient to the stresses of climate change, enabling producers to better select and breed animals who can flourish under extreme weather conditions.

MacDougall Ecology Lab

Our work focuses on the processes that determine the structure and function of plant communities, and how these processes are altered by the covarying impacts of global environmental change.