Ag-tech investments in a climate conundrum

Matt Mcintosh Correspondent North America
Photo: Canva
Photo: Canva

Science-backed crises need science-based policies accounting for the true level of investment transformative change requires.

The latest IPCC climate change assessment report hit like a howitzer shell earlier in August. It’s dire predictions of the consequences of inaction on global greenhouse gas emissions were seen on the front page of media outlets worldwide, spurring even greater conversation around the need for more aggressive action and policy analysis, not to mention politicking.

This is to be expected. The IPCC report states the facts, and those facts are scary. Now, as ever, it’s up to populations and their respective governments to decide if they are going to act.

The question – is it possible for such action to be grounded in enough science to account for the complexities and colossal shift that is moving away from fossil fuels? This author, for one, is unsure whether this will be the case when it comes to food production.

Ag-tech affordability and infrastructure

In the agriculture sector, technology can reduce emissions while increasing food production in line with ever greater demand. There are possibilities everywhere, from more drought tolerant cereal crops and efficient fertilizer use to carbon and methane recapture. As one University of Guelph animal science professor put it, we have the tools – we just need the will.

Will, unfortunately, means committing enough money to truly do what needs to be done. Doing what needs to be done means accounting for the complexities of transforming any agricultural system, and providing avenues to manouver past each barrier.

As an example, let’s consider electric tractors and what they could do to fuel emissions. What would it take to transform, say, the Canadian farm tractor fleet, to electric?

Barrier 1: Tractors are expensive

The price of equipment is, to be blunt, ridiculously high, and has only grown in both the used and new market in recent years. Investing in a machine which costs tens if not many hundreds of thousands of dollars or more is an enormous decision even for big time operators. Consistently low interest rates, the ability to acquire capital and incorporate loans into operating costs – all these things are at play, and by no means fully guaranteed in the long term.

Also read: Machinery prices skyrocket due to parts scarcity

Will electric equipment be any different? Likely not, meaning adoption will continue to happen in piecemeal fashion over some time. Faster adoption would in part rely on some kind of incentive from government, such as a fairly meaty cost share program.

Will the Canadian government or the provinces enacted such a program for farmers? To extrapolate further, what about non-farming citizens who can’t afford to replace their existing vehicle with a new electric one? These things are not unheard of even in this country, but whether taxpayers and governments are willing to take action at the scale required is hard to say.

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John Deere's study project to make the electric tractor feasible for heavy work in the field. Even if the infrastructure were magically in place tomorrow, is it affordable to shift to a new electric-based farm equipment fleet? - Photo: John Deere
John Deere's study project to make the electric tractor feasible for heavy work in the field. Even if the infrastructure were magically in place tomorrow, is it affordable to shift to a new electric-based farm equipment fleet? - Photo: John Deere

Barrier 2: Support and infrastructure

With enough material and expertise, I’m sure the private sector could keep up – or at least make a decent go of keeping up – with the support demands brought from a new electric-based farm equipment fleet. But what about the infrastructure demands of electric vehicles? Even if the infrastructure were magically in place tomorrow, is it affordable? If not, would the government then need to supplement both infrastructure development and ongoing use?

At one time, for example, the electricity bill for my family’s home farm – consisting of a two-story farmhouse plus a machine shop – exceeded $ 600-$ 700 Canadian each month. The unaffordability of such rates for much of the province’s population, particularly those regularly struggling to make ends meet, was a hot-button political issue which eventually resolved in the Ontario government artificially supressing those costs. For reference, electricity bills for the same property are now a bit over half the previously stated amount.

How significant will costs be if we hypothetically went all-electric tomorrow?

So, with an electrical grid already heavily subsidized, how significant will costs be if we hypothetically went all-electric tomorrow? Assuming the infrastructure was already in place and no other factors differed – that is, no other aspect of primary production went electric simultaneously – what would that alone cost the provincial government? Could subsidies be maintained? If not, what happens to the general citizenry?

Granted, not having to buy gasoline and diesel fuel would be a boon for the bottom line, but I’m not about to assume the math will inherently workout to the average person’s favour.

Barrier 3: A current lack of power

The speed of advancement in equipment technology is astounding, and something which should bring us all hope. That said, my experience covering the subject thus far indicates electric tractors are still not scalable to a point where large, heavier duty diesel machines working long hours can be practically replaced.

Also read: Why farm equipment still isn’t keeping up with technology

Developing and commercializing this level of workhorse capability – or the equivalent in the form of robotic swarm technology – is on the horizon, but it’s not yet here at a scale which offers immediate, practical solutions. This too must be recognized by policies focused on replacing the smoke-belching workhorses on which we all currently rely. Perhaps more aggressive investment in this area would shorten the gap?

To reference an earlier point, this is in addition to what will surely be the high costs of any new equipment. The costs must be borne by someone, and if that someone means individual farm businesses, change will not happen overnight.

Emissions equations – more complex than we want to believe

In summary, governments trying to get farmers off diesel fuel must account for the high cost of equipment, the public and private infrastructure required to effectively shift to electric, and the fact that different farms need different types of tools – many of which may not be available or practical at this point in time.

The need to cut fossil fuel consumption is, obviously, just one aspect of a wider approach to greenhouse gas emissions (I’m employing the example to highlight some of the many, many layers to enacting transformative change). The same approach may be applied to other areas within agriculture, such as the drive towards lower livestock-based methane emissions.

Would policy aimed at methane reduction account for the positive ecological role ruminants play within ecosystems like the Canadian Prairies? What about the fact that ranchers produce highly nutritious protein on what is often marginal land? What about the role of animal by-products (manure, oils, etc) in crop production and manufacturing, plus the associated environmental costs of replacing those products? Will these be accounted for, or will politicking lead to something unhelpful and more akin to beef = bad?

I’d also add upwards of 30 million bison – another ruminant – used to roam the North American prairies with little in the way of feed efficiency, and the world’s climate wasn’t collapsing specifically because if it. But perhaps that’s a subject for another time…

Technology is here to help to solve the problem

Suffice to say, policies designed to reduce agriculture’s impact on the global climate crisis must be developed with equations that account for the nuances of each system. But whether it’s electric tractors, livestock health, or soil fertility, the technology is – or at least will be – here to help solve the problem.

The trick, fundamentally, will be matching that technology with the will to shun simple answers.

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