The federal government is investing up to $13.7 billion in subsidies for Volkswagen to build a new electric vehicle battery plant in the St. Thomas, Ont., area. It’s an investment that supporters say paves the way for a green technology transition, bettering the environment as a whole, while providing much-needed jobs to thousands.
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Detractors have a more literal way of interpreting the above phrase, “pave” being just one 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 problem in how we’re trying to achieve environmental goals.
Namely, mistaking short-term solutions for long-term ones, and getting distracted by easy answers and shiny toys.
Aside from the vast cost in public funds, the new Volkswagen plant will destroy some 1,500 acres of prime farmland in Elgin County and remaining natural areas. Even more will be lost due to the secondary effects of expanded urban and industrial sprawl and infrastructure expansion. In a province that as of 2021 loses an average of 319 acres of farmland every single day (the true number is likely higher), are investments like this a good idea?
And while the need to kick our fossil fuel habit is real, is the answer to just make more but different kinds of cars? Is more “stuff” needed?
How long-term will the jobs associated with the plant and associated industry be? What happens when we (inevitably) hit a major recession or depression?
Whether public or private, even jobs that seem safe and stable only remain that way until budgets must be cut – or until the company in question decides it would be more profitable to move elsewhere.
The battery plant is 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 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 is doubled to account for a full decade, it’s still less than half the total amount of public funds going to a single (albeit huge) Volkswagen plant, and just barely over half of the federal government’s battery plant investment.
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Admittedly, this is not a true apples-to-apples comparison, but it illustrates the point.
Farmers find themselves responding to myriad policies, public scrutiny, economic pressures and other challenges. Historical pressures to continually maximize production and “go big or get out” are, arguably, still at play too. Then there’s 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 like the battery plant.
The level of investment in agriculture, a sector integral to the economy, and with enormous environmental opportunity, is pathetically small.
Think of what another $13.7 billion could do for the environment if it were invested in agriculture.
How much could we reduce nitrogen emissions if every farmer had easy, affordable access to precision application equipment and fertility technologies? How much carbon could be sequestered if every farmer could actually make money by establishing permanent buffer strips or natural spaces? How much more resilient could our crops be to harsh climate conditions if we establish larger and more 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?
In Canada’s agriculture sector, there is enormous opportunity to simultaneously produce food, improve the environment and support the economy.
But we and the policy makers who represent us keep getting distracted by shiny objects.