Fossil Fuels: Is Agriculture Accommodating Reduced Dependence?
Fossil Fuels: Is Agriculture Accommodating Reduced Dependence?

Fossil Fuels: Is Agriculture Accommodating Reduced Dependence?

Agriculture Myth Busting

The Canadian government has spent years reworking their federal environmental frameworks to accommodate changing sustainability standards. In 2023 for instance, as the government transitioned from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership to the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership, intervention focused on, among other guiding traits from the Guelph Statement, reducing emissions and increasing sequestration.

Yet, the environmental footprint of agriculture is not a priority when one compares to market performance and therefore these federally implemented frameworks have not done enough practical work for the fossil fuel-dependent industry that continuously increases its annual emissions. Combined with the structure of Canadian agriculture and the comfort the government has in letting the industry monitor itself, energy reliance and status quo are the preferred production routes of Canadian farmers. This is not to say opportunities to reduce emissions aren’t possible – there are a variety of beneficial management practices (BMPs) that have successfully contributed to the current carbon position of Canadian agriculture. When the government builds additional barriers to on-farm emissions reductions, naturally, farmers appear selfishly apathetic while members of parliament can claim the five-year, largely agriculture-independent environmental frameworks as their contribution.

Myth: Farmers can but are uninterested in reducing their on-farm fossil fuel use, actively working against Canadian agri-environmental initiatives in favour of economic performance
Canadian cities with the most fossil fuel industry workers
Canadian cities (2018) with the most fossil fuel jobs (Source)

The three largest emission sources in Canadian agriculture are enteric fermentation from cattle, fertilizer manufacture and use, and fossil fuel use. Depending on the province, the intensity order of these sources may change but the trends we currently see in agriculture are likely the new norm. To clarify, despite Alberta and Saskatchewan technically classifying as net carbon sinks (i.e sequester more than is released), agricultural emissions have ‘stabilized’ to a point where the sector is no longer making improvements. Rather, the prioritization of reducing emissions from the livestock sector, including those practices that increase carbon sequestration, has allowed complacency in the crop sector such that the Canadian agricultural industry is still a net emitter. For instance, approximately one-fifth of on-farm emissions come from fuel use, however, off-road diesel use is the largest emitter of those fuel sources and has not changed in over 20 years.

The twentieth century brought the Green Revolution, a period where farmers were provided with improved crop varieties allowing them to grow as much food as possible and cover as many acres as possible, with very little consideration of much else. This solidified the idea of “traditional agriculture” which focuses on increasing inputs to increase output, but also created input reliance. As the end of the century approached, government support for agriculture declined and, although the commercialization of genetically modified seeds in the late 1990s allowed for more targeted input use, the decline in emission intensity since is outweighed by the total emissions that resulted from the western idea of industrialization. On-farm fuel and energy use since the 1990s has increased by more than 90% and hasn’t changed much since 2005 (two years after agriculture was first included in national environmental frameworks).

Emissions Opportunity

Determining whether an individual’s operation can reduce emissions is farm-specific to their physical and economic capabilities, and the decision to start acting comes down to how concerned the individual is about fossil fuel use and whether they believe they have any responsibility to solve the environmental problem. When considering agricultural policy dynamics and fossil fuel reliance, it is suggested that farmers concentrate on reducing their on-farm carbon footprint (through reduced use, not just improving use efficiency) while the industry and government work together to innovate technologies that will aid farmers in their efforts. This is the sector’s best chance to meaningful fossil fuel independence and yet, there appears to be a disconnect between the ask of Canadian farmers and the governing carbon policies that actively complicates how likely we are to meet greenhouse gas emission targets in the next six years.

One of the major critiques of Canadian environmental policy is the lack of realistic direction in favour of exciting-sounding targets and adaptable vagueness. Take for instance the 2030 fertilizer promise of reducing related emissions by 30%. Given the role of fertilizer in exacerbating the negative consequences of agriculture, increased diversification and low-carbon input substitution can improve dependence. Without clarity from policymakers as to the intent of this benchmark, farmers have improved fertilizer use efficiency (especially in the prairies) as opposed to reducing related emissions, as the industry claims the promise has made a relative on-farm difference but emissions from fertilizer manufacturing have increased. Production and use of fertilizer has increased. While reducing intensity is more useful for the fight against agricultural emissions than refraining from red meat consumption or menu change, reducing fuel necessity altogether is more realistic than reducing livestock production and/or fertilizer use.

There is a particular opportunity in agriculture to reduce energy-related fossil fuels especially if renewable technologies can be developed to meet the current variety of needs. Biofuels (Table 1) are just one way in which fossil fuels can be substituted for less intrusive resources, although it often takes time for biofuel establishment, especially on a large scale, and involves replacing food acres in favour of fuel production.

Table 1. Feedstock-to-biofuel conversion rates for biofuels used in Canada, in litres (L) of fuel per metric tonne (mt) of feedstock (Source)
Conversion (L fuel/mt feedstock)
Animal fat/grease
Barley & rye kernels
Corn kernels
Cooking oil (used)
Rapeseed oil
Soy oil (crude)
Wheat kernels

In 2021, fewer than 12% of farms employed some kind of renewable energy on farms, a much lower percentage than those who use some kind of modern technology. By April 2024, the federal government could see the interest in biofuels, increasing investment in local Canadian biofuel production to better meet growing demand and, over time, improve its price. This alludes to support the necessity for renewable adoption and sustained use which, along with physical crop competition and the increasing price of oil, is required to increase biofuel production. Similar sentiments can be made about the government of Alberta’s fight against solar energy, in which withdrawing what little support exists for the practice resulted in a lost renewable opportunity at the expense of environmental progress. The government of Saskatchewan has also been particularly vocal about how its economic and corporate priorities do not support reduced fossil fuel consumption, as evidenced by its fight against the federal carbon tax. However, unless the governments can start prioritizing the environment (as they claim they do), fossil fuel consumption will continue to be an easy and constant source of emissions.

The Uphill Battle

I want to challenge the idea that the environment is being prioritized as claimed. While one may be able to argue that the inclusion of sustainability outlines is evidence of a climate-conscious Canada, agri-environmental frameworks tend to focus on BMP adoption at the expense of transitional support that can encourage long-term substitution. The On-Farm Climate Action Fund for example, which supports the adoption of carbon sequestration-specific BMPs by funding organizations that are better equipped for on-farm extension than federal sources, has improved its fund distribution to accommodate the differences in fertilizer use between eastern and western provinces. However, the program also limits farmers to one supported BMP, failing to acknowledge the diversity of methods required to adequately complement sustained fossil fuel and input substitution/reduction as additional. Agroecological BMPs exist that reduce fuel dependence like zero-tillage, which reduces the number of times machinery emits in the production process but, as reiterated at the April 2024 Natural Climate Solutions: Carbon Market Potentials workshop in Saskatoon, the results of those methods can vary by soil zone/region and are desperate for efficient government involvement.

Efficient involvement as an example would be reallocating the billions of dollars in annual provincial and federal subsidies (i.e. tax breaks or other financial incentives) flowing into the oil and gas industry to make fossil fuel extraction easier, to meaningful support the long-term use of low-carbon (high-sequestering) BMPs and development of clean technologies. Anecdotally, I have participated in multi-year BMP research where we lost field participation because farmers needed support throughout the trial, not just in the establishment process, that we were unable to supply. Without carbon policy efficiency, farmers are less likely to transition away from carbon-intensive inputs, and the use and cost of fossil fuels – alone and as we indirectly pay for them in the products we consume – will continue increasing. When policy governance is conducted on a case-by-case basis, as seen with the proposal of Bill C-234 to exempt barn heating from carbon taxation, efficiency and incentivization decline while reliance deepens. In this way, an agricultural exemption from the carbon tax could be argued as a subsidy because it would be easier (cheaper) for farmers to continue or increase their fossil fuel consumption. In this same stride, the release of the 2024 Canadian budget only confirms that the government has zero interest in reducing agricultural fossil fuel reliance, as more is expected to be spent on mineral extraction tax credits and farmer interest relief over the next five years than on developing a holistic clean technology strategy. Unfortunately, the 2023 deadline to weed inefficiencies from government frameworks like redundant provincial goals or the lack of technological impacts in performance baselines, is left unfilled, further discouraging the likelihood of emissions reductions by 2030.

Concluding Remarks

Unfortunately, these practices are not new to the space, as the Harper administration launched Canadian policy into the prioritization of traditional energy and incentivizing fuel use, and subsequent administrations have not made meaningful progress to the contrary. Acceptance of the norm does not mean the agriculture industry is afraid to speak up; looking back into Canada’s history reveals surges of lobbying whenever new environmental policies are drafted. Therefore, as consumers, we must also be aware of the counter-frame tactics surrounding fossil fuel use that attempt to distract from emission statistics with (socio)economic benefits. A change in fossil fuel consumption will have serious implications for farmers’ bottom lines as food inputs and utilities are emission-intensive, which is why the agriculture industry must start building resilience (and input flexibility) now. While I recognize the industry progress already made regarding improved soil management to encourage sequestration and associated emission intensity, sequestration is easily reversible and Canadian emissions are still trending off-track to meet the standards announced to the world. This can’t be wholly surprising given the cheapening of fossil fuel consumption and the barriers to farm environmental responsibility. We’ll have to wait for the autumn 2024 plan to end public fuel financing before we can truly understand where government will involve themselves. Unless governments can change the fossil fuel space, there is no incentive – least of all to farmers – to substitute fossil fuel use.