Greenhouse Gases and Agricultural Soils: Principles and Policy

Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association

Box 1360

Indian Head, SK S0G 2K0


Agriculture can play a major role in Canada's need to reduce greenhouse gases.

  1. Best Management Practices (BMP) (crop rotations, reduction in tillage, soil testing and judicious fertilizer use) make it possible to reduce emissions from crop production systems.
  2. BMPs enhance the removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and store it in agricultural soil as sequestered carbon and in agroforestry (soils and timber) as sinks.
  3. There are also possibilities to substitute bio-fuels (biodiesel from canola and ethanol) for fossil fuels.

Implementation could occur in three or more stages.

  1. The first stage would be to identify and remove the disincentives and barriers that discourage the adoption of BMPs.
  2. The second and subsequent stages would address incentives that would encourage the adoption of BMPs that reduce emissions.
  3. The third stage would provide incentives to enhance Greenhouse Gas (GHG) removals.(sinks)

The general objectives would be to maximize the potential of soil sinks and to reduce emissions from agriculture.


Objective: Create and maintain as large a carbon stock as possible with agricultural soils and agroforestry.

Principle: Producers will be the stewards of these stocks, so it is necessary to reduce the risk and to remove disincentives in order to maximize soil and agroforestry sink opportunities.

First Stage

Policy considerations to remove disincentives:

  1. Establish a 1990 soil carbon level baseline to recognize and not penalize early adopters (and the creators) of the BMPs that produce a soil sink.
  2. Review and amend crop insurance policies that currently produce any bias against the adoption of proven BMPs. (example- realistic yield guarantees )
  3. Review and amend safety net policies in order to address the added risk in the adoption of BMPs.
  4. Make provisions for widespread, long-term support for soil carbon sequestration and or conservation farming extension programs modeled after the highly successful, producer organizations like: Saskatchewan Soil Conservation Association (SSCA), Alberta Conservation Tillage Society (ACTS), Manitoba-North Dakota Zero-Till Farmers Association (MAN-DAK Zero-Till), and the Innovative Farmers of Ontario. These programs not only provide valuable "how-to" information but also peer support to farmers.

Second Stage

Policy considerations to provide incentives excluding carbon markets.

Identify the least cost approaches that encourage the BMPs that create and preserve sinks. These policies must be developed in conjunction with producers.

  1. High levels of management are required when adopting BMPs and incentives must address education and extension support.
  2. Policies need to address the machinery investment required to implement BMPs.
  3. Design safety net Policies that could provide incentives to promote the adoption of BMPs. Policies could also support shelter belt and agroforestry initiatives.


Objective: To reduce GHG emissions in the crop production system.

Principle: Establish a clear link with emissions per unit of production while recognizing the importance of food production in the national and international context.

Policy Considerations: Identification of 1990 baseline emission levels and the potential areas where emissions can be reduced.

  1. Recognize the high levels of management required in order to reduce emissions.
  2. Develop a producer friendly GHG accounting system that addresses producer risk.
  1. Identify fertilizer timing, forms, placement, and rate strategies that optimize production and minimize nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions.
  2. Develop cost effective and energy efficient weed control systems that enhance BMPs that reduce emissions.
  3. Develop crop rotation strategies that are profitable and minimize N2O, methane (CH4), and CO2 emissions.


Objective: A market system could provide incentives to reduce emissions in agriculture. Producers need to understand these market systems and to be as knowledgeable as possible as participants.

Policy Considerations:

  1. Markets for on farm emission reduction could be integrated with an industrial market.
  2. Accurate baseline emission information needs to be developed.
  3. Develop a farmer-friendly emission accounting system to document emission reductions.
  4. Full accounting of all emissions and sinks associated with farm production including those for all off-farm inputs and for farm products transported from the farm.
  1. Thee is a need to minimize emissions per unit of production.


Objective: To create a market that provides incentives to encourage GHG removals.

Principle: Market systems that are created must not transfer the risk of emissions to landowner or manager through carbon easements that create future obligations.

Policy Considerations:

  1. There is a need to encourage sink creation.
  2. Sinks need to be maintained as part of entire soil carbon stock.
  3. The fragile biological nature of soil carbon stocks.
  4. The liability to landowners posed by carbon easements.
  5. Agriculture will continue to be sources of emissions long after soil carbon stocks stabilize and they no longer provide net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.
  6. Carbon sequestration is reversible.
  7. GHG removals should not be a permanent substitute for industrial emission reductions.
  8. Landowners or managers own any GHG sink that they create.


Principle: Producers are the clients and scientific efforts to reduce emissions and increase sequestration need to consider the producers needs.

Policy Considerations:

  1. Some applied research needs to be conducted on financially viable farms to explore options that reduce emissions and enhance sinks.
  2. The Prairie Soil Carbon Balance Project needs to be maintained and expanded to integrate N2O and CH4 emission studies with CO2 sequestration studies.
  3. Incorporate into plant breeding goal
  1. Nitrogen-use efficiency.
  2. Nitrogen fixing wheat.


Objective: Study feasibility of biofuel (ethanol, biodiesel) production and use in agriculture. Opportunities that biodiesel and ethanol offer as blends needs to be explored.

  1. Biodiesel can substitute for fossil fuels.
  2. Biodiesel additives to fossil fuels can increase engine fuel efficiencies.
  3. Biodiesel can extend diesel engine life.
  4. Ethanol blended fuels need further study to see how they can enhance fuel efficiency.