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Hitting Net-Zero Means Rethinking How Canada Grows (and Buys and Eats) Food

Written by The Inspired Investor Team | Published on March 11, 2022

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Canadian investors faced with the complex issue of climate change may be familiar with some potential solutions to a warming planet, like reducing fossil-fuel emissions. However, it's worth considering how our food choices and agriculture — an industry that generates about 10 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gases, according to RBC research — can also play a role in greening our economy.

In the RBC podcast Disruptors, co-hosts John Stackhouse and Trinh Theresa Do are joined by guests Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, and regenerative agriculture expert Brent Preston to discuss how the food we grow, buy, cook and consume fit into Canada's climate conversation. How can farmers and agriculturalists slash their carbon footprint to help move us closer to net-zero? And how can consumers do their part? Here are some key takeaways from their conversation.

Farming faces significant challenges on the road to net-zero

Science has proven climate change is real, here, and already affecting most industries — but especially farming and food. “Agrafood is one of the principal contributors to the climate crisis we face," says McCain. The lion's share of emissions come from two sources: manure (methane) and grain production.

Nitrogen is the biggest challenge to greening agriculture

Nitrogen fertilizer is Canadian agriculture's single greatest source of harmful emissions, explains regenerative agriculture expert Brett Preston, and anything that reduces its use has an immediate benefit to the climate. One example is "cover cropping" — that's fast-growing crops like rye or buckwheat to put nitrogen back into the soil. It's easy, accessible and reduces fertilizer use, so why aren't all farmers doing this? “There's an initial cost, then it takes three to five years to see private economic benefits," says Preston. Many farmers can't swing this immediate hit for a long-term pay-off.

But pay attention to methane emissions, too

Just how bad is manure in mucking up our carbon footprints? Pretty bad, actually. Because of methane's higher concentration compared to carbon gas, it is estimated to have 28 times the environmental impact of carbon. Solutions? McCain points out two technologies with the potential to transform agriculture from part of the problem to part of the solution in the next 10 years: regenerative agriculture and anaerobic digestion. (Huh? Read on.)

Farming can actually repair some of the damage

Regenerative agriculture and anaerobic digestion doesn't just slash emissions in the future; they actually repair damage done in the past. Here's how: “Anaerobic digestion is a technology that takes the methane from manure, concentrates it, intensifies it, captures it, then converts it to a renewable fuel," explains McCain. Applied broadly across the animal-meat production system, scientists can actually reverse the negative effects of poor farming practices to put that carbon back into the soil where it belongs.

Why the world needs less food — not more

Every country and continent actually has more calories available than human beings need, says Preston. The real problem is where those calories are going, like “to corn, meat and highly-processed food that don't make people healthy." Malnutrition is caused by inadequate distribution of food, not lack of it.

What do people — and customers and consumers — really want?

McCain explains that consumers tend to set priorities by what goes in their body, what goes on their body and what's around their body. It's this last one that considers challenges like food insecurity and affordability — if a consumer faces either, carbon neutrality will likely move down their list of priorities.

Low Canadian food prices come at a cost

There's a lot of ink spilled on the so-called “Green Premium," but before you get irked at the price tag of organic fruit, Preston reminds us that food is as plentiful in Canada as it's ever been. Canadians pay less for food than any other country on the planet, and spend less time to earn it than any civilization in human history. What we don't pay at the supermarket, he notes, isn't free — workers, farmers and the environment all feel the impacts.

Preston urges Canadians to shop wisely to build a greener chain, because the old adage holds true: Money talks, vote with your feet — and you get what you pay for.

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