By Laura Rance
Organic Biz editor
Farmers have become accustomed in recent years to hearing about how agriculture contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, which are widely believed to be a leading cause of global warming.
Agriculture accounts for between 30 and 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions on the Prairies. One-third of that comes from crop production, mostly due to the industry’s heavy reliance on nitrogen fertilizers. About one-quarter comes from fuel used in crop and livestock production and another third comes from livestock — methane gas produced by burps, farts and stored manure.
Agriculture does not produce greenhouse gas emissions. – Darrin Qualman
But one researcher says it’s wrong to pin the blame for those emissions on agriculture per se. It’s the way we practise it that’s the problem.
“Agriculture does not produce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Darrin Qualman, a National Farmers Union policy adviser who has been studying agriculture’s role in the growing debate around carbon. “Agricultural inputs produce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Whether you think that distinction is significant depends on whether you believe, as most do, that modern production systems — with their heavy reliance on petroleum products, natural gas and manufactured fertilizer — are the best way to go about feeding the world’s growing population.
Qualman points out that agriculture has been emissions-neutral for 99.9 per cent of the past 10,000 years. Solar power fuelled the production engine, channelling the sun’s energy into grass for livestock and grain.
It was around the time of the Industrial Revolution, when hydrocarbons started to replace carbohydrates, that agriculture’s emissions profile changed. “It’s really only in the last 100 years that we’ve adopted a high-input, high-fossil fuel use, high-emission model of agriculture,” he recently told the combined Organic Alberta and Holistic Management conferences in Lacombe, Alberta.
Widespread adoption of manufactured fertilizer in the second half of the last century fostered a another major boost in productivity, but Qualman points out productivity gains have not matched the rise in fertilizer use.
“Global food production is up four-fold since the 1950s but fertilizer use is up 23-fold,” Qualman said.
Rising greenhouse gas emissions generally have coincided with growth in the world’s economy fuelled by fossil fuels over that same period. “Until 1870, the size of the global economy was relatively modest with little or no economic growth,” he said.
Climate change brought about by global warming now threatens that model for economic growth, he says.
The problem facing Prairie farmers is that if climate models are correct, parts of the western Prairies could see average temperature increases of more than 6 C, twice the increase expected globally.
Farmers will be on the front lines of dealing with the effects in the form of more volatile weather patterns creating more risk, while at the same time being penalized through carbon taxing for the sector’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
Farm groups are busy lobbying governments to get food producers a pass on carbon pricing.
Qualman says farmers must look for ways to reduce their reliance on manufactured fertilizers and other inputs.
“The future is going to push agriculture in the direction of organic and low input,” he predicted. Those systems also add carbon to the soil, which builds fertility while making it more resilient to excess moisture as well as drought.
“I am surrounded by people who are implementing a solution to the problem,” he told his audience.
Many will argue that yields under these systems are lower, which will make it harder to feed the world. What isn’t known however, is how productivity might be affected by an environmental collapse brought about by global warming.
That debate is far from over.
But there’s another factor that further tips the scales in favour of his argument.
Low-input farming systems consistently perform better than mainstream farming when it comes to profit margins, which except for some brief blips, have been on a flat line since the early 1970s.
The appeal of that was evidenced by the unusually high proportion of young farm families in the room.