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The federal government has been handed some much-needed suggestions for how to better engage the agricultural sector in cutting Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions despite tensions with farmers over carbon pricing.

In a prebudget submission being publicly released on Tuesday, the nascent organization Farmers for Climate Solutions – a coalition of agricultural and environmental groups – proposes a package of initiatives that would cost the government $300-million over each of the next two years. It calculates the investments would reduce emissions by 10 megatonnes, and pave the way for further greening of farms in the long term.

Ottawa is awash in reports about how to meet its climate targets, but this one stands out as unusually constructive. Its proposed supports for more sustainable farming practices, from soil management to cattle grazing to wetlands preservation, come with specific emissions-reduction and cost-per-tonne projections.

The proposals are also intended to help farmers’ bottom lines, mostly through improved operational efficiency – an attempt to demonstrate that rather than being an affront, the government’s climate policies could be a win-win.

To date, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have got the worst of both worlds in the way their environmental agenda has been perceived in rural Canada. Carbon pricing won’t do much to reduce agricultural emissions, which make up about 10 per cent of the country’s carbon footprint, because many farming activities are exempt from it. But there is nevertheless a strong backlash from some farmers because of a couple of ways the carbon price does affect them, with increased energy costs for grain-drying on the Prairies a particular flashpoint.

In an interview, Ian McCreary – a Saskatchewan grain and livestock farmer who co-chaired the task force that produced the Farmers for Climate Solutions report – laughingly called it “the understatement of the year” to say that relations between Ottawa and the agricultural community have been fraught. He suggested that the Liberals, conscious of generally having a more urban outlook, likely “feel a bit vulnerable” in trying to enlist farmers in new sustainability efforts.

So starting with “a matrix of between 20 and 30 management practice changes” that, with government support, could reduce farm emissions, FCS homed in on a handful that met the criteria of having clear co-benefits for farmers and no obvious downside for them, and could be moved on quickly.

The first is to address rising emissions from the use of nitrogen fertilizer by spending $115-million in each of the next two years funding agronomists to work with farmers on more efficient use and to document the results. That investment, the report says, could reduce GHG emissions by 2.9 megatonnes over that period, or $40 a tonne.

The report proposes that the government spend the same amount, at a slightly less efficient rate of $51/tonne (for 2.2 megatonnes in reductions) to encourage greater uptake of “cover cropping.” That’s the practice of planting unharvested crops that improve the soil and help sequester carbon. The funding would mostly be to pay farmers on a per-acre basis to adopt the practice.

Dollar figures on the other proposals would be lower: $25-million each of the two years to encourage more rotational grazing of cattle, for 0.3 megatonnes of reductions ($77/tonne). An upfront spend of $30-million to conserve trees and wetlands on farm properties would bring a projected 4.1 megatonnes ($8/tonne) of GHG abatement over two decades. There would also be $10-million to reduce emissions through purchases of new farm vehicles and retrofits of old ones, with more vague projections for emissions reductions because of uncertain uptake and technological advances.

All of those projections, really, should be taken with a grain of salt. Although the proposals are quite detailed and based on extensive academic and field research – FCS director Karen Ross said background documents will include 130 pages with “a substantial body of peer-reviewed research” – hard data on how policies affect agricultural emissions are limited.

That’s partly because there are many variables – crops, soils, long-standing practices – across a large country. It’s also because investment in sustainable agriculture in Canada has thus far been spotty at best. But that in turn points to a broader rationale for moving swiftly on such investments.

As the report notes, the next Canadian Agricultural Policy Framework – a federal-provincial package of farming supports set for five-year periods and worth $3-billion in its current incarnation – is due in 2023. That process will be the last best chance to set a comprehensive strategy for reducing agricultural emissions – something in which Canada has invested much less than many other countries, especially in Europe – in time to meet 2030 climate commitments.

To be able to make fully informed decisions in that regard, comparatively small investments of the sort that FCS advocates could be useful test runs, and help build goodwill toward climate policy among farmers.

FCS proposals, which have captured some attention in Ottawa before their release, may have to compete with a push from farmers for further carbon-price exemptions. The Liberals could be persuaded that the latter would be a better way to mend relations, although the two policy paths need not be mutually exclusive.

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, in a statement provided to The Globe and Mail that said she welcomes the group’s proposals, was non-committal about adopting them, noting promises of (mostly as yet unspecified) agro-environmental spending in the government’s sweeping climate plan released in December.

But the government has given few appearances to date of figuring out what that sort of spending should entail, and it is fast running out of time to do so.

It’s helpful that an outside group has done some of that homework, and it deserves to be taken seriously in this budget cycle.

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