To achieve environmental goals, governments need to make serious investments in agriculture modernization and long-term support.
Canada’s federal government recently announced $ 13.7 billion in potential subsidies for Volkswagen to build a new electric vehicle battery plant in the country. It’s an investment which supporters say paves the way for a green technology transition, and bettering the environment as a whole, while providing much-needed jobs to thousands.
Detractors have a more literal way of interpreting the above phrase – “pave” being a key word.
As one of those detractors, and as someone from an industry under particularly tough environmental scrutiny, I consider the multi-billion-dollar investment indicative of an endemic political failing in how countries like Canada try to achieve climate goals. Namely, mistaking short term solutions for long term ones, and not recognizing the assets we already have – a vibrant agriculture sector ripe for modernization, but one in desperate need of long-term support.
Aside from the vast cost in public funds, the new Volkswagen plant will destroy some 1,500 hundred acres of prime farmland and remaining natural areas, with secondary effects seeing yet more lost to expanded urban sprawl, industrial sprawl, and infrastructure expansion. In a province which as of 2021 loses an average of 319 acres of farmland every single day (the true number is likely much higher at this point), are investments like this actually a good idea? And while the need to kick our fossil fuel habit is real, is the answer really to just make more but different kinds of cars for a country utterly devoid of regional public transit?
How long-term will the jobs associated with the plant and associated industry actually be? What happens when we (inevitably) hit a major recession or depression? Whether public or private, even jobs which seem safe and stable are only that way until budgets need to be cut.
As so often happens, I get the feeling the battery plant is, in reality, yet another shiny object distracting us from real economic and environmental solutions
What industry has been around, in some form or another, through economics thick and thin? Agriculture.
What industry supports communities across the country, and contributes vastly more to Canada’s GDP than the automotive sector? Agriculture.
What industry is on the cutting edge of biotechnology, robotics, self-driving vehicles and other technologies? Agriculture.
What industry has the potential to simultaneously sequester carbon, expand or re-establish natural areas, and produce more food with less, all while supporting an enormous and diverse quantity of jobs and independent businesses? Agriculture.
Few other industries have this capability and potential. Yet the amounts invested in things like the Volkswagen plant – which I’d argue certainly does not have the same overall capability – are vastly disproportionate.
For example, the latest federal funding program for Canada’s entire agriculture sector totals $ 3.5 billion over the next five years. Even if that amount is doubled to account for a full decade, it’s still less than half the total amount of public funds going a single (albeit huge) Volkswagen plant, and just barley over half of the federal government’s battery plant investment. Admittedly, this is not a true apples-to-apples comparison, but it illustrates the point.
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Agriculture support programs are in constant flux, making it hard to know whether an investment today will still pay off tomorrow. As governments come and go, so too do their priorities. Farmers find themselves responding to a myriad of changing policies, public pressures, and at times incomprehensibly rapid economic events. Historical pressures to continually maximize production and “go big or get out” are, arguably, still at play as well – plus the need to modernize with new production technology, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and produce more with fewer resources and a shrinking land base.
This isn’t just a Canadian or North American problem – it’s global. As farmers and the farm sector are continually pushed and pulled in a dozen directions, governments worldwide continue pushing big, one-off projects with mountains of capital, not realizing they would garner a much better return-on-investment in a sector integral to the economy, let alone literal survival.
Think of what another $ 13.7 billion could do for the environment if it were invested in agriculture
How much could we reduce nitrogen-based greenhouse gas emissions if every farmer had easy, affordable access to precision application equipment and fertility technologies? How much more resilient could our crops be to harsh climate conditions if we establish serious, long-term breeding programs that embrace modern biotechnology techniques? What’s the economic value of ensuring farms are effectively passed from generation to generation, or of programs to help new farmers get their start without taking on obscene levels of financial risk?
These are just questions, of course. I remain convinced, however, of the near endless opportunity for the agriculture sector to support the environmental in a truly positive way.
Electric cars might be shiny – but they are not a solution in of themselves. We have to quite acting like magpies, and start thinking like philosophers and scientists.