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Canada's farmers need tech, investment to cut carbon emissions: report

Canada's agriculture sector needs to increase food production while also investing in sustainability to reduce emissions, according to a new report by RBC.
Royal Bank of Canada Wealth Management (RBC) signage is pictured in Ottawa on Wednesday Sept. 7, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Canada's agriculture sector needs to increase food production while also investing in sustainability to reduce emissions, according to a new report by RBC.

The report in collaboration with the BCG Centre for Canada's Future and the University of Guelph's Arrell Food Institute said Canada needs to increase its food production by a quarter by 2050 just to maintain its contribution to feeding the world's growing population, which is set to reach 9.7 billion in less than three decades.

However, it said the sector also needs to cut emissions; the sector currently produces 93 megatonnes in greenhouse gas emissions a year, more than 10 per cent of Canada's output.

If Canadian farmers maintain current practices and output levels, these emissions could rise to 137 megatonnes by 2050, the researchers said.

The report argued that Canada can lead the worldwide effort to feeding the globe — Canadian farmers already supply $75 billion worth of food to the global markets annually, supplying wheat, canola, and beef in particularly large numbers, as well as lentils and potassium fertilizer.

Meanwhile, climate change is disrupting supply chains and agricultural productivity. Climate change has already slowed global agricultural productivity over several decades, the report said, especially in warmer regions like Africa and Latin America.

However, it's also enabling Canada to produce more food, at least in the medium term, the report said. While heat, drought, floods and storms have wreaked havoc on Canadian farmland, crop yields are also set to rise as the temperatures lengthen growing seasons. 

Canada needs to grow more food, but without significantly adding to the acres it uses, the report said — even if farming further north may be tempting as the world warms, doing so could have disastrous environmental consequences.

Technology will be critical to growing more food without using up significantly more land, the report said. 

The report said that through technology, finance, and policy, Canada's agriculture sector could cut up to 40 per cent of those potential 2050 emissions. 

Some key solutions identified in the report include regenerative agriculture techniques like carbon capture, controlled environment agriculture like greenhouses and vertical farms, investment in trade infrastructure, and technology deployed in everything from crop genetics to soil testing. 

The three biggest sources of emissions in the farming sector are fertilizer, cattle digestion and manure, according to the report. 

Technology can help cut emissions from livestock and fertilizer, while regenerative farming practices can help capture carbon and sequester it the soil, therefore reducing emissions on both ends of the system,the report said. 

Regenerative agriculture, which has been on the rise in recent years, is a set of practices including reduced soil tillage and the planting of cover drops to help rebuild the land's natural structure that's been broken down by decades of modern farming, potentially making it more resilient to the effects of climate change. 

Many regenerative practices are not new, and are in fact drawn from the ways that many communities including Indigenous peoples farmed for generations, the report noted. 

The researchers said the agricultural industry will need cross-sector partnerships, private investment, policy development and research to help Canada be on the front line of this transition. 

While Canada is positioned well to lead in agriculture technology, from soil sensors and drones to artificial intelligence and data science to genetic breeding and cellular agriculture, the report said Canada falls behind the U.S. when it comes to attracting private investment. 

The report recommended the creation of a national plan involving farmers, investors, the private sector and the general population. It also recommended the creation of a central research funding body, as well as tax and financial incentives to help spur private investment. 

Farmers should be compensated for reducing emissions instead of taxed for the ones they do produce, the report recommended.

However, clearer reporting and measuring systems are needed to help quantify the effects of investments, the report said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 7, 2022.

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The Canadian Press