GHGMP Feature Articles

Greenhouse Gas: Taking charge of soil and nutrient management

A new program to mitigate greenhouse gas through improved soil and nutrient management practices builds economic and environmental sustainability

Canada is fortunate to count agriculture as one of its top industries and Canadians take great pride in producing some of the best food products in the world. With so many people in this country tied to agriculture, it is no wonder there is great interest in protecting the sustainability of the family farm.

But growing concern over the environmental impact agriculture places on the land has put pressure on producers and consumers to understand the role agriculture plays in climate change and greenhouse gas.

"Over the last few years, it has been hard not to accept the fact that there are going to be more drought and other climatic events that seriously impact our land," says Doug McKell, executive director of Soil Conservation Council of Canada (SCCC). "Producers realize the importance of sustainability and are keen to learn new ways to adapt to these issues, including climate change."

A new federal program from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, called the Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program (GHGMP) for Canadian Agriculture is addressing the issue of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while building a sustainable agricultural environment.

Canadian producers accept the need for change and are eager to participate in programs that benefit agronomics and economics, as well as climate change. McKell says many producers are already adopting new methods of farming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But he adds that agricultural producers, like other Canadians, need to be prepared to tackle climate change.

While the overall goal of the program is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, McKell says creating awareness by demonstrating best management practices for soil and nutrient management is the absolute key.

"From an economic and agronomic basis, we want to demonstrate that best management practices that reduce greenhouse gases make sense for producers," says McKell. "The economic argument is the strongest one we can make to farmers who are considering adopting these management practices."

McKell's counterpart in Eastern Canada agrees. "It can be hard to sell the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to producers," says Jerome Damboise of the Eastern Canada Soil and Water Conservation Centre. "But when you can tie the reduction of emissions to other objectives, such as improved production efficiency and economic gains, producers are more receptive to making operational adjustments."

Greenhouse gas and agriculture

One of the challenges of greenhouse gas is explaining the issue.

Greenhouse gases trap some of the sun's energy in the Earth's atmosphere, allowing a warm climate for sustainable life. But greenhouse gases have been building up in the atmosphere, which leads some researchers to believe that a global climate change is occurring and human activity is to blame. This is often referred to as the "greenhouse gas effect." An increase in carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and halocarbons, such as those found in refrigeration units, are all part of this warming effect.

Agriculture is only a small contributor to Canada's overall greenhouse gas emissions. Of the total percentage of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, contributions from agriculture can be tagged at eight percent. The energy sector alone accounts for 81 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions in agriculture come mainly from two areas: methane released by livestock and nitrous oxide released from fertilizers. The challenge for producers is to maintain an economically sustainable farm while making some changes to the practices of running the operation.

A program for producers

The GHGMP is a five year, $21 million federal program established by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The program funds demonstration projects across the country to generate awareness of beneficial management practices and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

SCCC administers $8.8 million for projects on soil and nutrient management. Working through the network of provincial soil conservation groups, funding is provided to each province for projects in their area. Under this "Taking Charge" approach, each province is able to determine which issues are most important to their producers and to structure how they want to address these issues.

"The Taking Charge approach is the strongest part of the program," says McKell. "We've been able to build a very effective network of producer groups who are all focused on dealing with the issues of conservation agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions."

While McKell oversees projects in Ontario and Western Canada, Damboise works closely with field co-ordinators in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Both are there to help facilitate projects run by the provincial organizations. Damboise agrees the structure of the program ensures positive participation and success.

"This program is essentially run by producers for producers," says Damboise. "It is easier to sell a practice to a producer when the message is coming from a peer rather than an outsider."

These provincial soil conservation organizations have formed "Taking Charge" Teams which are composed for the most part of producers, but also include researchers, government leaders and industry people. Within each team, a field co-ordinator acts as administrator of the provincial projects. The first year of the program in 2003 was successful, says McKell, because they were able to get organized quickly and put projects in place.

Achieving goals

Each province works independently to demonstrate practices relevant to their area. However, the GHGMP has general goals for soil and nutrient management. These best management practices have been determined by the Mitigation Advisory Committee in conjunction with producer groups across the country.

GHGMP projects promote practices such as direct seeding, zero or reduced tillage, reducing summerfallow and introducing perennial forages into marginal lands. On the nutrient side, best practices include addressing the use of commercial fertilizers and manure, such as more efficient use of fertilizers, ensuring the additional nutrients do not enter water systems, and reducing the release of nitrous oxide from the fertilizers.

With these general practices in mind, each province will be responsible for organizing projects that focus on issues important to the needs of their producers.

"Soil and climate varies greatly across the country, so it is important to address producer needs according to geographic location," says Damboise. "The key issues in Atlantic Canada are quite different than the needs of producers on the Prairies."

Regional projects under the GHGMP include zero tillage in Atlantic Canada and carbon sequestration in the Prairies. While zero tillage won't have as much impact in Atlantic Canada due to the smaller land base, Damboise says it is still important to prevent soil erosion and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Nitrogen management will be a project focus in many parts of the country. Manure management is an important issue in Ontario and Quebec and an area where they will continue to focus their efforts. Southern British Columbia will be developing demonstration projects on manure management as well, in addition to shelterbelt and windbreak projects.

Through the network of provincial soil and nutrient management groups, awareness of the benefits of adopting these conservation practices will strengthen and grow. Producers across the country will benefit from each project as they participate in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Snapshot - for producers

The Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program for Canadian Agriculture

Program. Federal program designed to promote the awareness and adoption of livestock, soil and nutrient management practices that reduce or remove atmospheric greenhouse gases.

Partners. Funding is allocated to agricultural industry groups in different sectors to deliver the program. Soil Conservation Council of Canada manages the soil and nutrient management component. The Canadian Cattlemen's Association administers the livestock portion of the funds and delivers the beef sector fund. The Canadian Pork Council delivers the pork sector demonstrations. Dairy Farmers of Canada delivers the dairy sector fund.

Activity. Partner organizations are responsible for demonstrations of good management practices, as well as communications activities such as workshops, information sessions, newsletters and booths at agricultural shows.

To see. Demonstration projects to improve the bottom line for producers and industry. Examples: for soil nutrient management, carbon sequestration strategies to boost soil health and yields while reducing nitrous oxide emissions; for cattle, feed testing and ration balancing strategies to boost feed efficiency and emit less methane, grazing strategies to enhance the forage quality and quantity available for cattle. Watch for demonstration sites nationally. Check partner Web sites for latest information and contacts.