Life on a farm: Nature-based solutions to the climate challenge

A recent webinar co-hosted by IEEP and the Mission of Canada to the EU discussed efforts being undertaken in Canada and the EU when it comes to adopting nature-based solutions in agriculture.

Canadians and Europeans are increasingly concerned with how their food is grown and processed and its impact on the environment and public health. Considering the importance of the agriculture sector in meeting environmental and climate objectives, this webinar looked at some of the efforts being undertaken in Canada and the EU when it comes to adopting nature-based solutions in agriculture.

Nature-based solutions to climate and biodiversity challenges on farmland are getting increasing attention. They aim to contribute to emission reductions, improve soil management and the sustainability of production whilst also providing biodiversity benefits. Many aim to increase the scale of carbon sequestration and storage in agricultural soils and vegetation on farmland, while capturing many other co-benefits for nature.

This event explored some of the thinking taking place in both Canada and the EU in this area, including the role of incentives and other inducements to adopt a new generation of practices in pursuit of nature-based solutions. The role of policy in driving innovation and the wider adoption of good practice was a key focus, but the conversation touched on a number of other topics, such as engagement by farmers and the importance of bottom-up initiatives to complement more centralised policy measures.

Insights from the panel

"Agriculture nature-based climate solutions and policy tools are currently being deployed by the Government of Canada. One that has been initiated about three years ago and recently announced for expansion across the country is something that in Canada we called Living Laboratories. We are already working in collaboration with Europe on this – the European Commission and France, in particular. This is something that we established with the vision that when we are working on research areas aiming to improve the environmental footprint of agriculture, these Living Laboratories would see scientists working side by side with producers [farmers, ranchers, etc] to actually be testing and implementing beneficial management practices on working landscapes. Right now we have four Living Laboratories in Canada – and this has been a very innovative policy tool that we are using."

"We need to start incentivizing the accelerated adoption of beneficial management practices and nature-based climate solutions to reduce GHG emissions, improve carbon sequestration and the health of soils, the quality of water and biodiversity on our agricultural land. We are using policy tools that are working in non-traditional ways, but I think we are looking to innovate even more with the exploration of new policy tools."

— Javier Gracia-Garza, Special Advisor, Agriculture and Climate Change, AAFC

"In terms of nature-based solutions uptake, for example, the basic requirement for most farms to have a certain level of diversity on their arable land applied to 74% (2018) of the EU’s arable land. In 2016, 56% of farms under 10 hectares had at least three arable crops. For the size class of 10-30 hectares, it was 20% or farms and for farms over 30 hectares it was 24% of farms. On voluntary support, for the current period with rural development policy, 6 member states have chosen to use their funding to support peatland restoration but we feel overall protection of peatland is too low in the EU as a whole. If we look at agroforestry, it’s 7 countries from the 27 EU member states that have programmed support for agroforestry through their current rural development programmes but implementation has been quite slow – hopefully speeding up a little bit – but results are still behind from where we want things to be."

"[To encourage the uptake of nature-based solutions, among other things] We’ve proposed a new funding instrument called ‘Eco-schemes’ which is a new category of environmental payment which draws on the large income support budget in the CAP. […] This will really be an opportunity for member states to spend a lot more money on specific environmental measures that they tailor to their requirements, which is relevant to climate change in terms of nature-based solutions."

— Mike Mackenzie, Policy Analyst, DG AGRI, European Commission

“Farmers face a lot of barriers when adopting new practices such as nature-based solutions. Despite an increase, the scale of adoption is not yet reaching the millions of acres of farmland across our country. As farmers, we take on risks, and there is often an upfront cost. This represents a significant financial barrier. Farmers for Climate Solutions' economic analysis shows that these practices are beneficial to an operation if they are adopted for several years – but in order to affect change, there is a need for significant investment. Other barriers we face are access to knowledge and social capital: knowing how to implement these practices well, and support from our community to try something different."

"We only have nine growing seasons left to significantly reduce emissions to meet Canada's targets under the upcoming Paris Agreement. Farmers want to be part of the solution to climate change, but agricultural emissions are not on a steady decline. However, with the recent funding announcement from the Government of Canada to support the scaling-up of climate-friendly practices on farms across the country, we can jump-start emissions reductions this growing season. This will allow our sector to begin changing the conversation in rural communities about what is possible."

— Karen Ross, Farmer & Director of Farmers for Climate Solutions

"The most successful policy tools used in Canada to adopt good agricultural practices are the ones that have stood the test of time. These policies can be categorized into three approaches: One would be educational programs which increase the awareness of the environmental impacts that farmer practices have… The second set of tools would be design-based programs which focus more on agricultural practices such as rotational grazing or cover crops… One group of design-based programs provide financial incentives to encourage adoption while the other group are preventative measures that force farmers to use certain practices and generally used to prevent farmers from going backwards with regards to their environmental impact."

"Soil carbon is closely related to soil health and there is an increase in awareness by farmers on the importance of improving their soil health as a means to not only increase yields but also the resiliency of those yields. Over the last decade there has been a growing acceptance of the concept of climate change or at least the growing variability in yields within the farm sector."

— Dr. Alfons Weersink, Professor, Dept, or Food, Agricultural & Resource Economics, University of Guelph

"Soils in Europe show worrying signs of degradation. According to data by the European Environmental Agency, we know that 60-70% of soils in Europe are in an unhealthy state and the costs associated with soil degradation in Europe exceed 50 billion euros annually. […] The main threats to soil health come from water-wind erosion and contamination from agrochemicals and industrial sources – we have quite significant historical pollution in Europe – but also from loss of soil carbon stocks."

"Nature-based solutions are cornerstones for maintaining soil health. We can’t have good soil management without nature-based solutions and working with agroecological processes in agricultural systems. […] One less known example is deep rooting crops such as alfalfa. When we are dealing with subsoil compaction, remediation by mechanical measures can be destructive but if you remediate with the deep rooting crops it can really return some of that functioning and also increases deep carbon sinks that are less susceptible to reversibility. Science clearly shows [nature-based solutions] are central for soil health in Europe but implementation lags behind."

— Dr. Ana Frelih-Larsen, Coordinator Agriculture & Soils, Senior Fellow, Ecologic