Register Saturday | January 28 | 2023
Reap What You Sow Illustration by Luc Melanson  

Reap What You Sow

Right-wing populism is on the rise in some Canadian farming communities, reports Sophie Kuijper Dickson. Will it put our food systems at risk?

Last winter, Ralph Lang reached a breaking point. After two years of frustrations with Covid-19 restrictions, he hung a big Canadian flag across the front of his eighteen-wheeler, usually used for trucking grain, and invited his neighbours to join him at the Freedom Convoy in downtown Ottawa. Twice, he made the hour-long trip to the city from his farm on the Quebec side of the Ottawa Valley to bring food and support to the thousands of people occupying the city’s streets. When the streets finally cleared at the end of February, Lang worked with a handful of neighbours from across the region, known to most as the Pontiac, to form the Government Accountability Committee—a tiny, nonpartisan group with a mandate to monitor and challenge all levels of government that “hinder [their] civil liberties.”

Lang and his fellow committee members are angry about federal and provincial policies that they believe have been limiting their individual freedoms: the vaccine mandates and travel restrictions, the use of the Emergencies Act, and more recently, the Quebec government’s Bill-96, a language law by which these anglophone Quebecers feel targeted. As a farmer, Lang is especially concerned about the carbon tax and other federal climate policies and programs he views as unnecessary and a waste of money. “I think government has to get knocked down,” he says. “They forget they work for us.” 

Lang doesn’t trust that politicians truly have his best interests in mind. Still, he’s willing to hear some of them out. This spring, members of the Government Accountability Committee helped Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), organize a gathering at a local brewery. On a warm afternoon in June, Bernier preached his party’s platform to nurses, business owners, public servants and farmers, many of whom were eager to hear how he would address their top concern: the protection of their individual freedoms. Bernier’s message—that convoy members like some of those in the crowd were not racist or xenophobic, but rather ordinary Canadians fighting to “regain their freedoms”—resonated with this rural, white and largely socially conservative community. 

As is the case in many rural communities in Canada, support for Bernier has grown in the Pontiac region since the onset of the pandemic. In the 2021 federal election, Bernier won 4.5 percent of the riding, more than triple the support he received in the 2019 election. Contributing to the PPC’s growing popularity was its commitment to repealing Covid-19 vaccine mandates and lockdown measures, most of which its platform claims are “arguably unconstitutional.” 

The version of freedom Bernier campaigns on also has implications for his climate policy. Bernier doesn’t deny that the climate is changing, but he rejects the scientific evidence that connects these changes to human activity. He promises to withdraw Canada from the Paris Agreement, abolish the carbon tax, and abandon all federal emission reduction targets, which, according to the PPC platform, “jeopardize our prosperity.” 

Bernier’s approach seems to be reaching people in Lang’s demographic. Right-wing populism is surging in many farming communities in Canada. Several agricultural ridings in Saskatchewan, such as Souris—Moose Mountain and Yorkton—Melville, saw PPC support more than triple since the 2019 election, with candidates collecting close to 10 percent of the vote. This trend holds steady in ridings in southern Ontario’s agricultural heartland. In Perth—Wellington, PPC support grew from 1.6 percent to 9.6 percent of the vote between the last two elections, and neighbouring ridings saw similar jumps. 

These numbers are still small. But as pandemic mask mandates drop and travel restrictions loosen, the residual anti-government and anti-science sentiment in some rural communities is stronger—or at least louder—than ever. In the Pontiac, these attitudes seem to have lasting implications for how people respond to other science-based policies, including those designed to move Canada toward its net-zero targets. 

Farmers, responsible for the management of millions of acres of land across the country, have a critical role to play in our climate adaptation strategies. Many are embracing the power they have as stewards of their land in mitigating the effects of climate change. But a small slice of the agricultural community, including people like Lang, feels the pressure to adapt is coming top-down from the federal government. They feel dictated to—like their lifestyles and businesses are being oppressed by elites who don’t care to understand them. Defensively, they want to protect the lives they feel entitled to. That need, for many, takes precedence over the protection of the environment. 

In Canada’s post-convoy political climate, people’s emotional attachment to defending their individual freedoms against what they view as an overreaching government may have dire consequences. In the Pontiac, these attitudes are quietly shaping how land is managed, how food is produced and the extent to which farmers are willing to collaborate on reducing emissions. Perhaps most concerning is that the government’s failure to engage people with these beliefs may leave an opening for populist leaders to harness their alienation in a growing right-wing environmental movement.

Farmers have a uniquely intimate and complicated relationship with the climate. Their livelihoods are directly dependent on the stability of their environments and the resiliency of their crops to extreme weather events. Aside from market factors, most farmers will tell you that nature is the single greatest risk to their business. Every crop decision they make is connected to what the weather is doing or predicted to do. At the same time, industrial farming is incredibly taxing on the environment and—whether farmers acknowledge it or not—contributes to the extreme climatic conditions that may destroy their businesses. 

When Lang took over his family’s farm in Shawville, Quebec, he sold off the cattle and began expanding his acreage. In seventeen years, he transformed what was once a 300-acre beef and dairy farm into a 3,800-acre cash crop farm. The crops that Lang grows can’t be eaten straight out of the field, and they’re not used to feed the local community, at least not immediately. Instead, the soy, wheat and corn is harvested, dried and trucked to ports and processing plants. From there, the grains become animal feed for the meat industry or unpronounceable ingredients on the backs of food packages.

Farms like Lang’s have come to dominate the Pontiac’s landscape as small family productions have been slowly absorbed and consolidated into large industrial operations. This type of farming—which much of the global food system is built on—relies on high levels of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in order to produce maximum crop yields with minimal hours of work on the same piece of land, year after year. 

At its worst, conventional cash crop grain farming is devastating for its local environment. It erodes the soil, depletes it of its nutrients, and poisons local waterways with chemical runoff from fertilizers, pesticides, and potentially carcinogenic weed-killers like Roundup. These harms may make the land unusable in the long term and will threaten the sustainability of food production as climate extremes become more intense and less predictable. 

Then there’s the matter of emissions. In 2019, the National Farmers Union reported that agricultural production accounted for 12 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The sector is the fifth-largest GHG producer in the country. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used to ensure maximum crop yields are responsible for a good portion of these emissions. Their application releases high amounts of nitrous oxide from the soil, a gas that warms the atmosphere at a rate 265 times greater than carbon dioxide, also wearing holes in the ozone layer. Agriculture accounts for 76 percent of Canada’s nitrous oxide emissions. On-farm vehicle use, fuel-intensive grain drying processes, and the frequent ploughing of the ground, which releases carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere, further contribute to the industry’s footprint.

As average farm size grows across the country, the stewardship and care for large portions of land rests in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Critically, in the Pontiac, a number of the farmers responsible for this land don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. They deny that the way they farm has a negative impact on the long-term sustainability of their climate. Lang, for one, acknowledges that the climate changes, but he doesn’t see these changes as primarily driven by human activity. As he sees it, the planet has always been warming and cooling without human interference. 

Farmers across international industrial farming communities hold similar beliefs. A 2015 study found that over half of farmers surveyed in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Scotland agreed the climate was changing, yet far fewer believed these changes are anthropogenic. In 2019, a study out of the University of Alberta revealed almost three quarters of beef and grain producers surveyed in the province think climate change is occurring, but only 10 percent of those surveyed mainly attributed these changes to human activity. 

Lang says he’s not opposed to all environmental protections, but he thinks that climate policies like the carbon tax, which charges farmers a percentage of their fuel bill, are misplacing the burden of responsibility. “We’re not the polluters,” he says. Lang believes politicians are hypocritical, and he gets frustrated watching them fly around the world in private jets as they tax farmers on their carbon outputs. His frustration over these measures has only been compounded by public health mandates. “They want to force so much on the general public. It’s Covid, it’s carbon, they want to cut our nitrogen use, it’s everywhere and you can’t stop it,” he says. “I can see that the government has too much control, and there’s no accountability the whole way through.”

Lang’s views seem moderate when compared to his neighbour’s. Martin Roth, who owns a 2,400-acre farm twenty minutes down river from Lang’s, believes climate change is a hoax. “This is another money grab from any government to fill their pockets,” he says. Roth—who says he participated in every day of the Freedom Convoy occupation—thinks the federal government is controlling the weather to create false proof that climate change is real. He points to chemtrails in the sky as evidence of its work. Roth contends that the government is doing this to justify taxing people like him, who are doing the hard work of feeding the world. “We’re on the bottom end, and we’re getting paid bottom-end dollars today. And now we’re getting taxed,” he says.

It’s a convoluted train of thought to follow. But for Lang and Roth, accepting the reality of the climate crisis, and their own contributions to it, would legitimize the government’s efforts to mitigate it—efforts that they feel interfere too greatly with their personal freedoms. At the heart of their denial of the environmental impact of their businesses is the fear of what they describe as a “communist state,” where they imagine they would have no say in controlling their own lives. Lang and Roth agree that this scenario—not the climate emergency—is the most imminent crisis that needs addressing. Even when he thinks about the future of his own three kids, Lang says he’s more concerned about whether their freedoms will be protected than whether their planet will be inhabitable. 

This spring, the Liberal government dedicated about $1 billion of its federal budget to helping agricultural producers adopt farming practices that would prepare them for a net-zero industry by 2050. The measures being promoted would increase their crop resiliency, save them money, and help mitigate climate change. In the Pontiac, Liberal MP Sophie Chatel launched a series of events to consult farmers, agricultural experts and industry leaders about transitioning away from a carbon-based economy. Lang went to one meeting, but he felt like it was pushing “government propaganda.” He hasn’t attended any subsequent events. He doesn’t trust the government and he doubts that his concerns would be heard.

Notably, Lang’s distrust of federal agendas behind climate programs hasn’t prevented him from accepting the financial support they make available. When droughts or hail storms devastate his crops, he relies on crop insurance, which is heavily subsidized by provincial and federal governments, to help pay his bills. He’s benefited from government programs that subsidize soil additives like lime, which make the nitrogen fertilizer he uses more accessible to his plants. And he plans to apply for federal funding to help him buy a more efficient grain dryer in order to reduce his fuel costs. “We’re going to take it if it’s available, but I’d rather them not tax people. Don’t take money to dribble it back,” Lang says. 

Lang concedes there is a tension between his political beliefs and what he has to do to grow his business. Yet the greater irony is that, despite his vocal resistance to the federal efforts to transition farmers like him to environmentally sustainable farming methods, Lang has been using some of these practices for the better part of a decade—not because of the potential climate impacts, but because they save him money and improve the health of his soil, therefore improving his yields. 

In 2012, Lang survived the worst year of his farming career to date. By his memory, his fields did not see a drop of rain for most of May and June. He ended up with only half of the harvest he had anticipated, and says he lost about half a million dollars. This was a turning point in terms of how he managed his land. He began exploring ways to keep more water in his soil, both to cut costs and so that future droughts would not hit him as hard. He started ploughing his fields less frequently to improve his soil health and increase the organic material within it. He also reduced his nitrogen use, giving his crops only as much as they needed throughout the growing season rather than applying larger, often wasteful, amounts—another move to reduce his input costs.

Roth has also adopted sustainable practices that have been good for his business. He uses cover cropping, which involves filling a field with a crop, like rye, peas or buckwheat, to replenish the soil with valuable nutrients before seeding the next commodity crop. While farmers around him were still ploughing their fields between crops, Roth committed to seeding the crops directly into undisturbed soil to maintain soil structure and keep carbon in the ground. This practice reduces the number of times he has to run machinery through his fields, which saves him repair costs and cuts back his fuel bill. Roth says with these methods, he’s increased the organic matter in his soil from 2 percent to 5 percent, making it more resilient to drier conditions. 

In the farming world, these kinds of adaptations are often referred to as best management practices (BMPs). They’re the kinds of sustainable methods that Brent Preston promotes as director of Farmers for Climate Solutions, a farmer-led, climate-focused agricultural policy think tank. BMPs store carbon, reduce GHG emissions, prevent soil erosion and protect watersheds from chemical runoff. The most mainstream BMPs—including those adopted by Lang and Roth—also increase crop resilience to extreme weather events, like droughts or flooding, and reduce input costs. 

Preston says many industrial-scale operators have been working to minimize their environmental impacts for years. On a 10,000-acre grain farm in Saskatchewan, farmers are experimenting with making their own home-grown compost fertilizer, including more crops in their rotations to better manage nutrients in the soil, and using precisely mapped nitrogen applications, among other adaptations. “If everyone was doing that kind of thing, we would have a much more sustainable agriculture sector, much lower greenhouse gas emissions, more productive agricultural land, and more profitable farms,” Preston says.

BMPs may increase profits long-term, but many demand serious up-front investments, money farmers often don’t have. In an industry like farming, where rising production costs make the market extremely volatile, squeezing margins tighter every year, the need for immediate profits dominates most decisions. Preston understands this, so his organization dresses climate-oriented agricultural policies in frameworks that emphasize how BMPs also save money. He highlights not only the immediate savings of lower input costs, but also what he calls the trade imperative. “Whether or not you believe in climate change, there’s a lot of international buyers and food companies that are concerned about the GHG footprint of their supply chains,” he says. Resisting the demand for low-GHG products could mean losing out on big business.

“Agricultural producers will embrace solutions that make economic sense to their bottom line,” says Margot Hurlbert, a professor at the University of Regina and the Canada Research Chair in climate change, energy and sustainability policy. Hurlbert’s research on farmers in Saskatchewan shows that there’s not a clear link between their climate beliefs and adoption of BMPs. While she’s found that many are still adopting some degree of climate-friendly practices for financial reasons, framing adaptation in terms of the immediate economic benefits has its limits. 

From what Hurlbert has seen, producers are unlikely to take on an up-front expense that might save them money over the long term, especially when they’re reluctant to acknowledge the significant future climate risks. She says denial of the human-caused climate crisis may undermine producers’ abilities to adapt and be adequately prepared for forthcoming climate extremes, especially when they occur at unprecedented scales. Relying on past experiences of extreme weather events can only go so far in helping farmers imagine the future possibilities, and the degree of corresponding devastation. Canada has been warming at a higher rate than the global average. If high emissions continue, the average temperature in Canada could increase by six degrees, making millions of acres of farmland unusable.

Roth admits that long stretches of weeks without rain concern him. He worries about the health of his fields, despite his beliefs about climate change. “We try our best to be good stewards of the land,” he says. “We try to keep that land available for future generations. That’s in our nature, that’s how we’ve been trained. You destroy it now, the next generation won’t have anything left.” But Roth refuses to participate in any conversations organized by his local Liberal MP, even if they might help increase his farm’s resilience. 

Generally, he draws a harder ideological line than Lang when it comes to whether he will accept government money or support for his business. He moved to Canada from Switzerland over two decades ago to escape what he felt was an overregulated agricultural industry, which he believed was largely dependent on government subsidies for its survival. He still applies for some funding programs but, on principle, he says he’s against government grants for farming because he feels they legitimize further regulation. “I could take way more money from the government to make this operation go, but I don’t want to because then the government comes in and sniffs around,” he says. 

Hurlbert says that it will take more than climate science, or money, to change the minds of farmers like Roth and Lang. She thinks they will need to shift away from the idea of individual freedoms and toward the notion of regional—or even international—responsibility in order to be adequately prepared for coming changes. Yet she also thinks adverse reaction to the government’s rollout of public health policies during the pandemic offers a valuable lesson about the enforcement of science-based decision making. Hurlbert cautions that a democratic approach to policy design cannot rely purely on scientific fact for its validation. “Science informs policy, but it doesn’t make policy,” she says. “If we were to make all policy based on the evidence of science, we wouldn’t need a democracy. I think it’s a good reminder that when we’re making policy, this act of talking to people … and hearing their concerns, is important.”

Cara Pike is the executive director of Climate Access, an organization reimagining how climate change is spoken about in Canada and the US in order to engage hard-to-reach or skeptical communities in mitigation efforts. One of her projects has involved collaborating with scientists in Montana to encourage the state’s agricultural communities to participate in climate action. “There’s a lot of room for improvement on the part of government in terms of really rethinking the policy design and promotion process,” Pike says. “If you create a safe space with people who are trusted messengers, you frame the issues around what people care about, and you set up a dialogue versus being prescriptive—to co-explore and co-create solutions—then you can start to move the needle.” 

While governments are a key part of this process, she says that it’s often best for them to play a supporting role during the initial stages of public engagement. “If you’re someone who mistrusts government and governments are the main actors speaking to people on the issue of climate change, you’re a lot less likely to want to engage.” Pike says the messenger is critical. She’s found success when conversations were hosted by agricultural scientists instead of climatologists, or leaders from local farming groups like unions or stock growers’ associations instead of federal politicians. 

Pike has found that it’s critical to have representatives who can help “overcome that divide around commonly shared rural values,” regardless of their place on the political spectrum. Often, shared values exist around water supply and availability issues, and how to take care of local watersheds to increase crop resiliency in the event of drought or flooding. “It’s not: ‘Come talk about climate change,’” she says. “It’s: ‘Let’s talk about what you’re concerned about.’” 

Over the summer, Roth saw his worst fears play out as he watched tensions around agricultural climate policies escalate overseas. In the Netherlands, hundreds of farmers protested their government’s plan to cut nitrogen pollution by 50 percent, a target which would require a significant reduction to livestock numbers. Angry farmers blocked food distribution centres, dumped manure and lit fires along central roads, and protested outside of ministers’ homes. Protestors said the cuts to livestock numbers would devastate their businesses and impact the “economic, social and cultural viability” of their communities. Donald Trump voiced support for the farmers, commending their fight against the “climate crisis hoax.” 

Elsewhere in Europe, political leaders on the far-right are shifting from outright climate-change denialism to using the crisis as justification for other social reforms that are fundamental to their brand of populism. During France’s recent election, right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen campaigned on a nationalistic climate platform that promoted an environmentalism grounded in protecting the land and climate of the nation from external threats. Her vision sees climate change mitigation strategies going hand-in-hand with anti-immigration policies—ones that prioritize the safeguarding of tradition and necessitate the closing of borders. 

In the UK, the far-right British National Party makes this xenophobic environmentalism more explicit, claiming to be the only party “to recognize that overpopulation—whose primary driver is immigration, as revealed by the government’s own figures—is the cause of the destruction of our environment.” The BNP saw negligible support in the UK’s 2019 election (less than 1 percent of the vote for its only candidate). Yet research from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of York which analyzes far-right parties in twenty-two European countries has found the promotion of this correlation to be a significant trend. 

The intersection between racist nationalism and environmentalism is far from new. Richard Walther Darré, minister of food and agriculture for the Nazi party, popularized the ideology that came to be known as “blood and soil,” equating German identity, and the preservation of a Germanic race, with a rootedness to the land. German farmers were framed as heroes in this project. Hitler’s government passed a law that enshrined the connection of German farmers to the land they owned, obligating farmers to pass on their land to the next generation rather than sell it or section it off. This law was designed to raise the social status of farmers by ennobling them as racially pure guardians of land to which they held a hereditary connection. 

Agricultural producers, the stewards of the nation’s land, were positioned as essential to the protection of a political and cultural identity. Trump’s recent support for the Dutch farmers, which framed them as being in a battle against the “climate tyranny of the Dutch government,” did similar political work, associating agricultural production and environmental stewardship with the defence of national freedom against foreign threats. “You’ll be next,” Trump said, implying the undefined forces the Dutch farmers were fighting would soon launch a direct attack on his audience. 

Back in the Pontiac, Roth says the protests in the Netherlands prove citizens are fed up with government overreach that is serving the agendas of the globalist elite and the World Economic Forum. This is a popular conspiracy theory that has been circulated by far-right media in Canada over the summer. Right-wing publications, and some Conservative politicians, have been spreading misinformation, claiming liberal governments are creating food-supply issues as a means of controlling citizens and increasing their dependency on governments. 

Emboldened by this theory, Roth hung Dutch flags, upside down, off of his farming machinery, and put a call out to like-minded neighbours to join him at one of many protests organized across the country by the national far-right Freedom Fighters Canada group. In Ottawa, actions included a “slow-roll” parade of trucks on the city’s main highway and crowds of roughly two hundred people downtown. 

Roth believes there’s an urgent need to organize, especially since the Canadian government has proposed its own plan to cut fertilizer-related GHG emissions by 30 percent below 2020 levels by the end of the decade. While Ottawa says it plans to meet this target without imposing mandatory reductions in fertilizer use, Roth has already adopted the incremental and precise nitrogen applications that will likely be encouraged. Still, he’s convinced the government’s proposed reductions would make it impossible for farmers like him to grow their crops. “It’s an agenda to eliminate food availability and starve the world,” Roth says, echoing a sentiment repeated by farmers across the country who have been exposed to misinformation. “The more they implement this climate bullshit, the uglier it’s going to get. Because we’re going to fight.” ⁂

Sophie Kuijper Dickson is a writer who spends her time between Ottawa and Pontiac, Quebec, where she’s learning how to grow wheat.