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Food and agriculture are expected to take centre stage this week at the United Nations climate conference (COP27) in Egypt.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Canada needs to develop a national approach to sustainable agriculture in the face of the deepening climate crisis, a new report says.

“The world needs another green revolution,” says a report released Monday by Royal Bank of Canada, BCG Centre for Canada’s Future and Arrell Food Institute – and a united strategy in Canada toward sustainable food.

“How do we, as a country, produce more food for ourselves but also for the world? And how do we do that while cutting emissions?” said John Stackhouse, senior vice-president at RBC. “That, to me, is the Canadian moonshot of the 2020s.”

The report comes against the backdrop of the United Nations climate conference (COP27) in Egypt this week, where food and agriculture are expected to take centre stage.

Currently, agriculture and food production are responsible for about 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions – about 93 megatonnes each year. But with the world’s population set to increase by 26 per cent by 2050, those emissions are likely to rise to 137 megatonnes each year.

The report outlines a list of potential solutions that it says could reduce those emissions in Canada by up to 40 per cent – including new technologies and alternative agricultural management processes. But currently, farmers and food producers lack the incentive and infrastructure to adopt them.

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“We will never achieve a green economy if we don’t have an economic system that reflects the environmental cost – or at least accounts for – the environmental costs of our production,” said Evan Fraser, director of Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.

Instead, he said, farmers are only rewarded for producing food – but not for how they produce it.

One example highlighted in the report is regenerative agriculture, the set of farming practices aimed at improving soil health, which has increased in popularity in recent years. Further adoption of these practices in Canada could potentially prevent 35 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

But for farmers, this comes with significant upfront costs – and the risk of not seeing a return on the investment. According to the report, it takes farmers about four years to recoup the costs of their investment, and six years before they see profits.

Farmers face similar risks with adopting many of the new technologies highlighted in the report as well. Some of these technologies include anaerobic digesters (which convert manure and organic waste into energy), soil testing aimed at reducing fertilizer use and feed additives that could reduce livestock methane emissions.

“It’s all doable,” said Prof. Fraser. “We’re talking about technologies that are either available now, or rapidly becoming commercially available,” he said. “It’s not science fiction.”

But, the report says, governments need to help create the conditions to encourage these solutions.

“We need to invest in the infrastructure, systems and national verification standards,” said Mr. Stackhouse.

With regenerative agriculture, for example, there aren’t yet regulatory standards from policy makers. Without even a legal definition of “regenerative agriculture,” both farmers and consumers are left without guidance or oversight.

Government investment, said Mr. Stackhouse, could also encourage more – and much-needed – private investment in sustainable agriculture.

Lenore Newman, director of Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley, said that currently, the government’s approach to funding is a huge barrier.

“The funding in Canada is a bit scattershot,” she said – split not only between the federal and provincial governments, but also through the many departments and bodies that intersect with food. “On a national level,” she said, “there is no dedicated agricultural funding stream for researchers.”

She pointed at the Netherlands as a model. There, academics, government and the private sector work together closely, using a targeted approach. Despite the relative size of the country, it’s the second-largest agriculture exporter in the world.

Canada, which is already a major global producer of grains, pulses and proteins, has similar potential, said Prof. Newman. “Canada needs to wake up and realize we’re a food superpower,” she said.

Agriculture is expected to be a key subject of discussion as global leaders convene at COP27 this week. The combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, global conflicts and extreme weather have left large swaths of the global population facing severe food insecurity – most notably in Africa and the Middle East.

Around the world, more than 193 million people are currently facing a crisis level of food insecurity or worse, according to the UN. Many other countries, including Canada, are facing record-level food inflation. The effects of climate change are only expected to exacerbate this.

But Canada can position itself as part of the solution, said Mr. Stackhouse.

“If we can demonstrate to the world how to produce more food with fewer emissions, that’s an extraordinary contribution for Canada,” he said.

“Then it becomes a great marker for the world – that this can be done.”

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