Climate Change and Agriculture

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Climate Change Mitigation
  3. Climate Change Adaptation
  4. Additional Resources


What is Climate Change?

Our atmosphere is full of invisible gases, some of which are greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases insulate the Earth. They trap the sun's heat and keep our planet warm enough to sustain life.

Some greenhouse gases in our atmosphere do exist naturally. But a large portion of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere today have been, and continue to be, created by humans. This means that more of the sun's heat is being trapped than the Earth actually needs.

In fact, too much heat is being trapped, and the planet is warming too much. This is what's known as global warming. Global warming is affecting weather patterns all over the world and this effect is what's known as climate change.

A region's climate means the usual weather patterns and conditions of a region. So, a change in weather patterns and conditions is a change in climate.

The world's weather patterns are changing. This includes temperature changes (warming in some places and cooling in others) and altered rainfall patterns, as well as more frequent occurrences of hazardous weather events like heavy spring rains and heat waves. Changing climates pose risks to the health and safety of people, wildlife, forests, farms and water supplies. This is why it's so important for Government, farms and food processing businesses to be aware of the causes of climate change and take corrective action. We all have a role to play in reducing GHG emissions.


How the Ontario Government is Addressing Climate Change

Under its 2007 Climate Change Action Plan, Ontario is committed to reducing GHG emissions that cause climate change to:

  • 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2014
  • 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020; and
  • 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

All sectors of Ontario society must contribute to lowering our GHG emissions, including the agricultural industry, food processors and rural communities.

The Ontario government recognizes that reducing GHGs through mitigation measures needs to be combined with measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Even if GHG emissions stopped today, our climate would still undergo significant changes for decades to come because of the current levels of GHGs in the atmosphere.

Ontario's Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaptation issued its report in November 2009 with recommendations on what the Ontario government needs to do. The overarching recommendation was that the government develop an Adaptation Strategic Action Plan. The Action Plan was released in April 2011. The government is already undertaking numerous adaptation activities related to agriculture. These include long-term planning for potential water shortages, monitoring and surveillance programs for animal diseases and plant pests, supporting research into developing pest- and drought-resistant crops and reviewing business risk management approaches.

Over the past few years, OMAFRA has led and/or supported a number of initiatives to help reduce GHG emissions. The Environmental Farm Plan and the Ontario Biogas Financial Assistance Program are two such examples.

Environmental Farm Plans (EFP) are assessments voluntarily prepared by farm families to increase their environmental awareness in up to 23 different areas on their farm. Through the EFP local workshop process, farmers will highlight their farm's environmental strengths, identify areas of environmental concern, and set realistic action plans with time tables to improve environmental conditions. Environmental cost-share programs are available to assist in implementing projects.

OMAFRA has also invested in the biogas industry on farms and food processing plants. The Ontario Biogas Systems Financial Assistance Program helped fund feasibility studies for the installation of biogas systems as well as cover a proportion of construction and implementation costs. Energy from biogas is a green or renewable energy, and its production reduces greenhouse gas emissions by reducing reliance on fossil fuels. In addition, biogas systems reduce greenhouse gas emissions by consuming methane produced from stored manure. Methane is twenty-one times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing global warming. The management of the digestate from the biogas system may also reduce emissions compared to the conventional management of manure or other input materials. A series of workshops have also been delivered across the province to provide farmers and food processors with information on setting up and maintaining biogas systems for their operations.


Main Sources of Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Agriculture is responsible for 5 per cent of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Ontario. In the period since 1990, total provincial GHG emissions have risen, while agricultural GHG emissions have remained essentially constant. Within agriculture, the main sources responsible for GHG emissions are ruminant livestock belching and manure, both of which release methane (CH4) into the air; and release of nitrous oxide (N2O) from soils as a result of application of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and manure. In addition, there are indirect GHG emissions from agricultural activities, such as the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted during fossil fuel combustion by farm machinery and the manufacture of fertilizers and farm machinery. These types of emissions are typically reported by the transportation and manufacturing sectors. The main greenhouse gases emitted by the agriculture sector are nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide. Since 1990, GHG emissions from agricultural soils and enteric fermentation have decreased slightly in Ontario, while emissions from manure have increased slightly. The overall impact has remained the same.


Climate Change Mitigation

What is Mitigation?

The more we learn about greenhouse gases and climate change, the more we understand that each of us can help reduce emissions.

The good news is that many practices that will help farmers achieve their goals of improved productivity such as improved livestock nutrition and reduced water use, also reduce GHG emissions.

Agriculture is well-positioned to make a difference. Properly managed, healthy soils may act as a "sink" to remove GHG emissions from the atmosphere. Natural areas found on many farm properties such as wetlands, woodlots, pastures and buffers, can also trap GHGs. Increasingly, there are viable opportunities for on-farm green energy generation, such as the production of biogas. Agricultural operations can participate in reducing atmospheric GHGs by adopting processes or activities that:

  • reduce the amount of GHGs released into the atmosphere (GHG sources)
  • remove GHGs from the atmosphere by storing them in soils (for example, by growing perennial tall-grass crops) or removing them (GHG sinks)

Best Management Practices

Agricultural producers can reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in different ways:

  • Reduce fossil fuel consumption by making more efficient use of tractors and selecting energy efficient motors, fans and lighting systems
  • Replace fossil fuels with renewable energy (biomass, geothermal, wind and solar energy)
  • Improve livestock production efficiency.

Farmers can also sequester (store) carbon by adopting practices that keep carbon in the soil and by increasing woodlots and shelterbelts on their farms.

In order to reduce nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, agricultural producers can:

  • Improve soil aeration
  • Improve feed efficiency in order to reduce the amount of nitrogen in manure and urine
  • Apply the right rate of manure and synthetic fertilizer, at the right time, in the right place and from the right source
  • Keep their barns clean and well ventilated, to avoid anaerobic conditions

Agricultural producers can reduce methane (CH4) emissions in these ways:

  • Improve livestock nutrition, in order to reduce enteric fermentation (e.g. belching of ruminant livestock) through better production efficiency and the use of feed additives
  • Improve manure storage systems by covering manure tanks, removing manure frequently and storing at lower temperatures
  • Use anaerobic digesters to capture methane and produce electricity


Climate Change Adaptation

What is Adaptation?

Adaptation to climate change is changing activities and processes in order to lessen negative impacts of climate change that is already taking place, and to open the agricultural sector to new opportunities that might arise from a changing climate.

The agricultural sector is used to adapting to changing circumstances. However, there is a need to understand climate change impacts – which are longer-term changes rather than year-to-year weather variations – and how vulnerable the sector is to climate change in order to take preventive and adaptive measures.


Facing the Reality of Climate Change

Climate change presents both risks and opportunities for agriculture, food processors and rural communities in Ontario.

Climate parameters, such as heat waves, changes in water availability, extreme storm events, drought and pests, are expected to influence agricultural production. Some of these parameters are also expected to affect Ontario's food processing sector and rural communities.

Examples of expected risks arising from climate change include:

  • increased heat stress on livestock
  • increased pest volumes and number of pest species
  • modified geographical extent of agricultural production and locational shifts for growth of certain crops
  • potential limitations on food processing expansions due to water quality and quantity issues
  • financial challenges for rural municipalities exposed to extreme weather events and needing large infrastructure enhancements to cope with such events (bridges, roads, etc.)

Ontario farmers are familiar with adapting to business risks and opportunities. Climate change may provide potential new opportunities for the agricultural sector if risk is managed and opportunities explored through collaboration, partnerships and research. Likewise, the food processing sector and rural communities will need to address both the positive and negative elements of climate change.

Examples of potential opportunities arising from climate change include:

  • Increased diversity of crop species and varieties grown
  • Increased productivity in current agricultural production areas
  • Northward extension of crop production, depending on soil quality
  • Benefits to food processors from consistent agricultural production and new products
  • For rural communities with a strong agri-food presence, benefits from the climate change adaptation opportunities taken up by the agriculture and food processing sectors

As the government's Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaptation has noted the key to the success of climate change adaptation strategies will be "mainstreaming" adaptation activities into the day-to-day work of government ministries – that is, fully integrating adaptation into ministry policies and programs. The same is true for farm and food processing businesses.


Additional Resources

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