Calls for an immediate shift to green energy ignore the realities of farming

There’s a reason why agriculture supports oil and gas. It’s not because we’re backwards, aren’t paying attention or are climate deniers.

Farmers can't buy technology that doesn't exist or isn't affordable

Farmers aren't against green energy, but any transition has to take the economic realities of the business into account, says Merle Massie. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

This is an opinion column by Merle Massie, a Saskatchewan historian with a minor specialty in environmental history and an adjunct faculty member with the School of Environment and Sustainability (SENS) at the University of Saskatchewan. She is an administrator at the U of S and also farms in west-central Saskatchewan.

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There's a reason why agriculture supports oil and gas. 

It's not because we're backwards, aren't paying attention or are climate deniers. 

Many of my academic colleagues — in SENS, at the Global Institute for Water Security, in the U of S history department and elsewhere — are incredible academics, deeply immersed in climate modelling and research. They are calling, both within the academic realm and on social media, for immediate policies to address climate change. They are fiercely intelligent, passionate and honestly terrified of the impact, now and soon to come, of climate change. 

But I live in two worlds. I'm not just a trained researcher. I also farm alongside my husband in west-central Saskatchewan. 

I'm here to tell you an immediate green transition out of oil and gas — the so-called 'just' transition, where oil and gas workers are retrained for other industries — will leave every farm in Western Canada (conventional and organic) behind. 

Farms are businesses

It's not that farms aren't interested in green energy. Most farms already strategically use small-scale devices such as water pumps, electric fences and weather monitoring devices. They work and we know it.

Many farmers support diversified power generation and would consider larger-scale on-farm renewable operations if we could sell excess back into the grid without penalty. Think of sun, wind and geothermal as crops to be harvested.

If farms could make money at it, they'd invest in it. Farms are, at their roots, businesses. 

Support for the green transition breaks away, hard, with the ardent calls for an immediate shift away from — and complete shutdown of — the fossil fuel industry.

That's not a path we farmers can follow. Not now, and not for some time to come. 

Fact: high-horsepower electric farm machinery of the scale and power required by most farms in Western Canada simply does not exist. It hasn't been invented or is not yet mass-produced and widely (affordably) available. Farms can't magically buy what is not there.

Even if it was there – if it existed, worked well, and was widely available – we still couldn't make that transition overnight. It's a massive undertaking to ask farms to buy a whole new equipment line. Such a transition – if the technology were available – would require a long window (let's say 30 to 40 years) and extensive financial support. 

The reality is, we need to listen to the scientific consensus around climate change AND build policy that works for farmers.- Merle Massie

Most farms operate and constantly fix a line of machinery that ranges in age, traded and upgraded as the farm can finance. Forcing precarious farm businesses, via policy, to buy a new equipment line could be the shove that tips many into bankruptcy.

While the engine is one part, all machinery needs oil products for lubrication and hydraulics, let alone plastic and computer components. The so-called complete shutdown of the oil industry isn't practical. Really, we all know that. 

Equipment manufacturers also need targeted financial support while they transition their factories. Integration between policy-maker, farm and manufacturer is key. 

And what, exactly, would we be doing with the internal combustion machines? We've been closing our rural dumps already, because we can't meet the new environmental regulations. While some might be sold for scrap metal, I foresee many tractor and combine cemeteries in the back forty.

Farmers are realists

Finally, Saskatchewan may be committed to up to 50 per cent renewable energy generation, but that still leaves 50 per cent non-renewable energy production – which would have to ramp up to meet the higher electric needs of high horsepower machines. 

Transferring emissions upstream isn't really a "green shift." 

Even at the farm household level, we face issues of distance and time. An urban commuter could switch to an electric vehicle, but they travel only short distances. If a farm is more than 200 kilometres from a major centre – and many are – it is simply not feasible.

In the end, calls for an immediate end to the fossil fuel industry and transition to green energy, even when backed by data and climate science, do not account for issues at the farm gate. 

As such, it sounds to a farmer both tone-deaf and unrealistic. 

Farmers are realists. The reality is, we need to listen to the scientific consensus around climate change and build policy that works for farmers. 

It will take both to create change in Saskatchewan.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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About the Author

Merle Massie is an author, historian and farmer in west-central Saskatchewan. She co-ordinates undergraduate research initiatives at the University of Saskatchewan.


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