Transformation needed for carbon net-zero

Hope for radical change in farming systems


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As keynote presentations go, the kickoff speaker’s at a virtual conference on the sustainability of Canadian agriculture this week was a bit of a downer — at least initially.

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As keynote presentations go, the kickoff speaker’s at a virtual conference on the sustainability of Canadian agriculture this week was a bit of a downer — at least initially.

Henry Janzen, a career Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientist who now serves as an honourary research associate with the department’s Lethbridge research team, is widely respected by his peers for his ability to see the big picture in the context of everyday science.

He didn’t mince words addressing whether it’s possible to get the agricultural sector, which contributes 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions (not counting the emissions from fossil fuels or fertilizer production), to a net-zero position.

“To be blunt, I cannot see a way that we can arrive at a durable net-zero system by the year 2050,” Janzen said.

The farming system, as currently designed, can reduce emissions by becoming more efficient. Janzen and other speakers outlined a host of real and imagined paths to achieving those efficiencies. Researchers and policy-makers could also fudge the numbers by modifying the parameters of success and what they choose to measure.

But in Janzen’s view, today’s farming systems can never achieve a net-zero balance of carbon in, carbon out over a sustained period because that is not how they are designed.

“Farming is very deliberately extractive. In other words, the whole point of farming is to generate and then bundle up and export from the farming system as much carbon and as many nutrients as we possibly can to be used remotely from that ecosystem,” Janzen said. “So, if that system is to be sustained into perpetuity, those nutrients somehow need to be replaced.

“Historically, what we have done is taken a natural system, which is a carbon- and nutrient-reinvesting system, and replaced it with a carbon- and nutrient-exporting system.”

The second obstacle is that so-called ‘carbon sinks’ can only hold so much, and they will only hold it for so long before they start to leak.

“Always, carbon gain is induced as a response to a change in practice, not by the continuation in the long term of a practice,” he said, noting sinks are also vulnerable to leakage through changes in soil management, and ironically, changes in the climate.

“The carbon stored to reduce warming may, in turn, be lost upon warming. The more carbon we store, the more carbon becomes vulnerable to climate change,” Janzen said.

Reducing agriculture’s role in the emissions contributing to catastrophic environmental change will require us to change how we value the landscape and pay farmers for what they do.

“I think it’s fair to say that many of the systems that we envision that might help us toward net-zero farming are constrained by the rejoinder that, ‘well, that’s all very nice, but it’s not profitable and cannot be adopted,’” he said.

It means changing the narrative around agriculture and its role in not just the economy, but in society and the environment.

“If we are to progress toward net zero, that will demand transformative reconfiguration of our farming systems,” Janzen said. “It will demand a radical re-evaluation of how we farm. ‘Greening’ will not suffice.”

That entails asking different research questions. It calls for reimagining the Prairie vista as one that reflects a mosaic of biodiversity rather than neat boxes of monoculture that we see today as “productive” fields.

In other words, don’t look to science and technology to save the day.

“It means that changing how we farm is a societal undertaking. This is not something we plot out in scientific conferences or in our laboratories,” Janzen said.

“What we need is to tell stories that invite all of society into this opportunity to reconfigure our farming system, to reconfigure a way figure the way we manage our lands.”

It’s a daunting challenge, but Janzen said he is “emphatically, unambiguously hopeful” about the possibilities it presents.

He sees the drive towards net zero as a catalyst for change with benefits that extend far beyond climate mitigation.

It also creates room to invite some valuable voices into the conversation. More on that to come.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at

Laura Rance

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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