SFU researcher finds cover crops can help B.C. farms adapt and mitigate against the impacts of climate change

June 06, 2022
Cover crops are plants that provide a variety of ecosystem services such as slowing soil erosion, improving soil health, and increasing crop resilience to extreme weather events. They can also sequester carbon.

As British Columbia’s agriculture sector faces the challenges of climate change, an SFU researcher is exploring one effective pathway to mitigate emissions and increase industry resilience—through increasing the adoption of cover crops.

Claire Davies, who recently completed her capstone project in SFU’s Masters in Public Policy program, focuses on the dual purpose of cover crops, as they provide protection against the impacts of climate change for B.C.’s farms and also sequester carbon to mitigate impacts.   

Cover crops are plants that provide a variety of ecosystem services such as slowing soil erosion, improving soil health, and increasing crop resilience to extreme weather events. Cover crops can also sequester between 0.11 and 0.51 tons of carbon per hectare per year in B.C., and the average abatement cost of increasing adoption of cover cropping is $51 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Cover crops may be planted over whole fields or be selectively planted to sustain, recover, or enhance desirable ecological attributes.

“B.C. has one of the most favourable climates for cover crops in Canada,” says Davies, who receives her Master of Public Policy this week during SFU’s spring convocation. “Yet despite the potential of cover crops to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support adaptation to climate change, adoption rates remain low.” She found that in 2015, only 28.1 percent of B.C. farms reporting field crops used winter cover crops.

Davies, who was supervised by Nancy Olewiler, a professor at SFU’s School of Public Policy, says farmers currently underinvest in cover cropping since they are not compensated for the ecological services that they provide to society. Looking at the economics behind underutilizing cover crops, she notes that “these positive externalities mean farmers cannot fully recover their costs from planting cover crops, and thus have less incentive to plant them.” 

Claire Davies pictured working in a greenhouse on an organic farm.

Davies suggests that additional government support can help reduce barriers and encourage the adoption of cover crops, while also compensating farmers for the ecological services the crops would provide. “These efforts would also help B.C. meet its climate change mitigation and adaptation targets,” says Davies.

Davies identified and analysed five provincial policy options that would address cover crop underutilization. From her analysis she recommends the expansion of two provincial programs: B.C.’s Farm Adaptation Innovator Program (FAIP), to include increased funding to academic institutions for on-farm research projects, and extensions to farmers through agricultural extension agents, and further expanding the Beneficial Management Practices (BMP) Program, to provide additional funding to cover crops projects and increase the capacity of B.C.’s regional agrologists. “These policies complement each other given their market readiness,” says Davies, noting that both programs have roles within the early stages of CleanBC’s climate roadmap to 2030.

“My hope is that this research might help policy makers to better understand what tools and levers could be used to encourage wider adoption of cover crops as a nature-based solution, and how cover crops can contribute to achieving B.C.’s climate targets,” says Davies.