Using the carrot, not the stick, to encourage clean tech

By Serge Buy

Editor’s note: Serge Buy is CEO of the Agri-Food Innovation Council. He can be contacted at

The federal Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food has met on multiple occasions to hear support for and opposition to a carbon tax exemption for farms. AIC’s Serge Buy is an outspoken supporter.

For more than a century, the Agri-Food Innovation Council (AIC) has been one of the key advocates for cross-sectoral agri-food research and innovation in Canada. As such, we are asked to weigh in on various issues, including some that may, initially, seem out of our scope.

Such a case took place when, in October 2022, we were asked to present in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food to discuss Bill C-234, An Act to amend the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Act.

Simply put, the private member’s bill seeks to protect some types of farm activity from the carbon tax.  The proposed legislation is the successor of a similar bill that disappeared when the preceding legislature ended when the 2021 federal election was called.

AIC was asked to testify in front of the parliamentary committee to discuss the advancement of innovation leading to renewable sources of energy.

The parliamentary committee’s members were philosophically split on a crucial issue: will Canadians adopt renewable energies and drop fossil fuels voluntarily, or do they need to be pushed to do it?

The carbon tax is called an incentive by some. Indeed, one could assume that a tax may be seen as an incentive not do something, such as how taxes on tobacco are raised to make it unaffordable to smoke. Others see it as a penalty.

Replacing the use of fossil fuels in farming

The use of natural gas and propane for heating barns is still the dominant method in commercial hog production. Animal welfare depends on it, and farmers’ ability to feed Canadians and the world depends on keeping input costs under control as much as possible.

Innovation is indeed enabling renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels; however, the technology is not scalable to the whole country and all types of farming.

Renewable energy sources are not available all over the country, nor is local production (when it exists) sufficient to support the requirements.

To be clear, the technology will evolve and grow, and so will its adoption rate throughout the country. But we’re not there.

Making clean tech affordable

There is always a cost to adopt new technology. Often, early adopters undertake a cost-benefit analysis and move forward. 

In the case of the carbon tax, the intent is to impose a high burden on the users of fossil fuels to encourage them to change to renewable fuels. Our concern is that large corporations involved in farming will have an unfair advantage in comparison to smaller operations. Indeed, they will be able to afford and finance the transition, while the smaller operations will not be able to. 

This would mean that small operators would face increasing costs under the carbon tax, while large farm operations transition. This is not acceptable.

Is Canada prepared to abandon small farming? Is Canada prepared to move away from family farms?  We don’t think so. In fact, innovation and leadership in farming has often originated from small operators, and they need to be protected.

Food supply versus climate change

AIC hosted a webinar with international experts in food policy, agricultural technology and research, in May 2021, to discuss the global agri-food sector’s role in climate change.

At a webinar AIC organized in May 2021 on agriculture and climate change, various experts, including a representative from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), clearly stated that, while work to reduce carbon emissions is essential, so is ensuring a supply of food for the world. Canada indeed has a responsibility – especially in troubled times (considering inflation, the war in Ukraine, droughts in Europe and Africa) – to continue to produce food.

Pushing farmers out of the business by increasing costs is counterproductive to our national and international objectives of greater food security.

Let’s be clear: the devastation from the floods and fires on the west coast in 2021, followed by the hurricane that hit Atlantic Canada and everything in between, shows that our climate is changing – it is more unpredictable and will lead to increasingly destructive weather.

Work is being done to study the impact of climate change – how it will impact humans and animals, how it will impact crops, how regions of the country will suddenly be exposed to hotter temperatures, and more.

Who would have thought a few years ago that berry producers from the U.S. would now be looking at moving their production to Canada, due to the availability of water and expected warmer conditions? 

We absolutely have to do our part – and I know that no farmer is waking up today thinking, “How can I pollute more?” However, hitting them repeatedly with a stick (in this case, the carbon tax) when they have no other option is not going to help. 

The government’s role should be to create the options – enable the scalability of the technology, support its adoption by creating incentives for farmers, and explain how it can work.

When I spoke at the parliamentary committee, Ryan Turnbull, Member of Parliament (MP) for Whitby (Ontario) stated his belief that, “the price on pollution increases the rate at which industries both develop and adopt new clean tech.” What he means is that, if you increase prices on something, people will look at other solutions, but they first need to exist. In the case of Canadian farms in rural Canada, those solutions are often non-existent.

As I stated at the same committee, if the government wants to tax the ‘urban warrior’ who wants to drive a gas-guzzling, oversized vehicle until the individual is forced to ride a bicycle… that’s great. But most farmers must drive pickup trucks. Most are obliged to use fossil fuels to heat barns where animals reside. They’re not the ones who should be taxed – at least not until there are clear, viable, scalable and affordable alternatives.

The government needs to realize that its policies must be adapted to the realities of the land we live on.  What works in downtown Toronto may not work in rural Saskatchewan, and vice versa. Adapting policies will enable us to work together on the same objectives, while respecting the diversity that our wonderful country offers. We shouldn’t pit one region against another or urban versus rural. 

AIC supports increased investments in both the research for alternative fuels and technology, as well as investments in the production of these technologies. We also encourage the government to invest in extension services to support farmers and develop easy-to-access incentives for their adoption. That’s how we’ll reduce our carbon footprint. 

The carrot works better than the stick. There’s no need for aggravation and conflict as we strive to decarbonize our society. On the contrary, we should work together progressively and positively to adopt cleaner technologies.