Many farmers are bemoaning the federal government’s goals for lower greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizers, while agriculture groups have differing views on how the targets are to be met.
In December 2020, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada released its “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” climate plan, which called for 30 percent less greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer applications by 2030. In May, the goals were reiterated in a discussion paper that invited feedback until the end of August.
Last September, an analysis commissioned by Fertilizer Canada found that farmers would lose $48 billion in profits from crop yields between 2023 and 2030 if they used 20 percent less fertilizer over that period in order to achieve the 30 percent emissions target. In July, agriculture ministers from Alberta and Saskatchewan issued a joint statement against Ottawa’s “arbitrary goal,” saying, “We cannot feed the growing world population with a reduction in fertilizer.”
More recently, a 2021 survey by Fertilizer Canada suggested a 30 percent reduction might be possible without a reduced use of fertilizers. The organization, which represents fertilizer manufacturers and distributors, advocates use of “4R Nutrient Stewardship Practices” and the “4R Climate-Smart Protocol” for reducing nitrous oxide emissions on farms. “4R” refers to the use of the right nutrient source for the soil applied at the right rate at the right time in the right place. Of the 17 essential nutrients, nitrogen is the one plants demand the most, says Fertilizer Canada.
According to the survey, across the crops and regions surveyed—such as canola and spring wheat in Western Canada and corn in Ontario—58 percent of acres followed basic 4R principles in 2021. In addition, it said studies show that a 30 percent reduction below 2020 levels of nitrous oxide emissions could be possible in the prairies with 80 to 90 percent adoption of intermediate 4R practices under the protocol.
The survey found that about one-third of Western wheat farmers do annual soil sampling to ensure they are applying the right amount of nutrients to the soil, while slightly more varied the amount of fertilizer they apply using different methods to help ensure the right amount is being used in the right places.
Grain Growers of Canada (GGC) chair Andre Harpe, who farms oilseed crops and grains near Vauxhaul, Alberta, says the survey points to ways farmers can adapt to meet federal goals.
“Fertilizer is one of our biggest expenses,” he told The Epoch Times.
“Obviously, it feeds the crop. It only makes sense to put in what you need to feed the crop, and farmers tend not to put too much more, but there’s always different things that we can do to make it better. We should always strive to be better and that’s what we’ve been doing over the past 30 years.”
Harpe says the carbon tax not only has contributed to higher fuel costs but also higher manufacturing costs for farm machinery. He says farmers need federal concessions to meet federal climate policy goals.
“Partially due to the carbon tax, the cost of investing in new equipment has just gone astronomical, and it’s very prohibitive to move towards some of these practices.”
Harpe has decided a cooperative approach is better. In March, the GGC announced a “farmer-driven path to net zero” called the Road to 2050. The Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission is partnering with the initiative, but chair Brett Halstead believes Ottawa needs to understand what farmers have done already.
“Farmers have reduced emissions by using modern technologies. Since 1981, a lot of direct seeding has gone on, and we use GPS and sectional control and soil tests. We’ve increased the amount of food we’ve produced since then, which means we’re doing it on a per bushel basis on even less of an environmental impact,” Halstead said in an interview.
“There’s a real worry out there about food security and energy security, and Canada can lead in these areas and doesn’t need to hamstring ourselves with regulations that don’t seem to have a good result.”
In July, a wide coalition of farm groups called on Ottawa to compensate them for the 35 percent tariff on Russian fertilizer. Halstead, who farms near Nokomis, Saskatchewan, says reduced yields would be counterproductive for reduced emissions.
“Our crops breathe in carbon dioxide and out oxygen, so we’re already part of the solution. We just have to make sure the government hears that and understands that, and that seems to be part of the problem right now,” he said.
“We’re trying. Speaking to government isn’t about just talking to them once. It seems like you got to get to know them, explain your story, and really get to know them again, explain the story again. And then finally, they kind of know who you are.”
‘Absolute Government Pandering’
Both Halstead and Harpe question whether the federal government has established a proper “baseline” of what emissions really are. Western Canadian Wheat Growers Alberta vice president Stephen Vandervalk agrees, but says crop farming is a carbon sink already, so suggesting a road to get there is already “very dangerous.”
“The Road to 2050 is absolute government pandering. We are way past net zero. We’re net negative, but the government won’t admit it or won’t give us credit,” Vandervalk said.
“These groups are saying, well, we can’t go to the government and say we’re net negative or net zero already, because then they won’t listen to us or they won’t give us anything or stuff. So they’ve all come up with these plans,” he said.
“I’ve had this conversation. I’ve fought with Grain Growers of Canada about it. I used to be president of that organization.”
The Fertilizer Canada survey suggested enhanced efficiency fertilizers are underutilized. With these fertilizers, nitrogen is kept in its stable form using a urease inhibitor, nitrification inhibitor, dual inhibitor, or a polymer-coated urea product.
Vandervalk, who sows malt barley, canola, and durum near Fort Macleod, Alberta, says such fertilizers can’t help him, especially now that he injects fertilizer below the soil surface, as per 4R best practices.
“I used to use inhibitors sometimes when we spread [fertilizer] on top of the ground. It doesn’t work in our industry,” he said.
“It could work for canola a little bit, as long as you’re getting it on before it starts molting. After that, you’re wasting your time.”
The survey found that 58 percent of corn acres in Ontario use split application of fertilizer. Applying some fertilizer at the pre-planting stage and the rest during the growing season could lower emissions. However, Vandervalk says this approach has the same problem as inhibitors. Namely, the plant takes cues for its development based on the moisture and nutrients available early in its growth, so the fertilizer must be available then.
“Split application doesn’t work because now all you’re doing is affecting protein, you’re not affecting the yield of the plant anymore,” he said.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot because it’s not making the nitrogen available to the plant when it needs it. It’s making it available later on when you don’t need it.”
Vandervalk says other emission-friendly options to restoring soil nutrition, such as the occasional planting of pulse crops on a given field, are already used so extensively that disease is becoming a risk. He says market realities already drive farmers to minimal fertilizer use.
“We run in under two percent returns on investment. If we’re not as sharp as sharp can be, we’re out of business. It’s that simple. And you’ll never get a chance to actually sit down with the minister in front of an audience and challenge them on these things,” he said.
“If you want to reduce fertilizer use or reduce nitrous oxide emissions, then the only way to do that is to cut fertilizer. And I actually reject this notion that we even release that much nitrous oxide.”