Will changes in climate policy impact land use on your farm?
We don’t know yet in Canada but here are some considerations and examples from around the world.
Agriculture, and in particular animal agriculture, has long been proclaimed by special interest groups as climate culprits and has been accused of a litany of woes, stemming largely from the production of meat.
Not only is much of the global environmental agenda focused on reduction of food animals reared both in industrialized settings and on pasture, governments are taking heed of voices that support a radical agenda.
Under the umbrella of climate change action in Canada comes the question of land use and the purpose of land specifically for set-aside and rewilding. In the past farmers have participated in conservation, regeneration, allowing public access and carbon sequestration.
Volunteer set-aside programs were common in the 1980s and Canada does not, by nation or municipality, endorse mandatory setting aside of land. Rewilding is a relatively new term in the last 10 years, used to describe turning productive land back to a natural state. The Global Charter for Rewilding the World was supported by 3,500 stakeholders in 2020.
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In many areas of the world there is a direct threat to farming. American scientist Eric Dinerstein promotes rewilding over 50.4 per cent of the Earth’s land. While Canadians are rewilding by such actions as introducing bison back into the mountain parks, one prominent U.K. scientist has long advocated for taking out 90 per cent of the cattle and sheep in that nation, replacing animal protein with plant protein grown on vertical farms and paying the farmers for carbon sequestering.
This is extreme in measure and a gross miscalculation of land functionality and its ability for duality. But these ideas gain traction as the public continues to be told that food animals are destructive. It all creates pressure on politicians who want happy constituents.
There is evidently a wide gap between practical knowledge and best intentions.
An example is Heal Rewilding in the U.K., a charity aiming to purchase large tracts of land, and turn it back to the wild with the assistance of introduced species. The unusual mixture to be introduced would be: ponies, deer, longhorn cattle and pigs. The reasoning behind this selection is not clear as these are not compatible grazing partners. (In Saskatchewan and Alberta, where the majority of the nation’s nearly 53,000 wild pigs roam, farmers and environmentalists can attest to the ecological destruction caused by the introduction of pigs.)
In many countries, farmers have or are setting aside land for the environment. While farmers in France had set aside 30 per cent of their land for rewilding in the 1980s, farmers in the U.K. have had to set aside 15 per cent and commit to a 20-year habitat plan.
Canadians participate by being proactive such as protecting riparian areas through initiatives like Cows and Fish. Should we do more? And if so, how should or could Canadian agriculture respond to climate change challenges when so little is known by the public about the benefits of agriculture or agro-ecology?
It starts with information.
When I researched for this column online, I did not in the first 50 hits, regardless of the wording, get one positive scholarly article. This tells me that our system and society have failed in recognizing agriculture as a contributor to the landscape. Nor has the industry been successful in encouraging our academia and students to fully investigate and publish balanced research on agro-ecology and land use.
Equally important is that we have yet to fully appreciate the possible when all of agriculture works collaboratively together. We need to consider the rapid pace at which these initiatives are going ahead and the impact of future generations.
Differences can be found within our borders.
In Ontario, farmers are encouraged to increase shelterbelts and woodlots on the farm. Quebec is highly regulated and cattle are limited in outdoor exposure. B.C. has an enforceable act to protect agricultural land. Alberta is sacrificing mountain watersheds, which are needed for people, animals and crops, in the interest of mining.
In other words, change in the interpretation of land and water use can come as quickly as the nearest election — leaving all farms vulnerable to regulation imposed in the name of climate change or the environment, the economy or the public interest.
Although initiatives such as rewilding, conservation, set-aside, carbon sequestration and public access have value, what you may be asked to do on your farm in the future might not be realistic or make sense.
It is best to think about this now, especially considering Canada’s climate change plan. Invite those without agricultural knowledge into an early, fact-based and collaborative discussion.
Agriculture has a choice: To be a climate culprit, short on facts and research, or to be a climate victim because of a lack of engagement or understanding of trends, such as rewilding.
The most desirable outcome is for Canadian agriculture to be the climate champion by inviting stakeholders and bringing information, options and sound evidence to the table.