Emission targets sow seeds of concern

Geoff Geddes | The Word Warrior

If doing more with less was an Olympic sport, Canadian farmers would be gold medalists. Weather, markets and politics constantly throw them a curve, but a recent move affecting fertilizer use could really tarnish the bottom line. In December 2020, the Government of Canada released “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy”, a plan which pledges to reduce emissions from fertilizer by 30 per cent below 2020 levels. Though the goal sounds good in theory, it’s the devilish details that are raising concerns.

“Farmers recognize the need for emission reductions across the board,” said Karen Proud, president and CEO of Fertilizer Canada in Ottawa. “This summer has shown us firsthand the results of climate change, and we are not opposing emission reductions but they must be done in a way that make sense for farming in Canada and that doesn’t put a cap on productivity.”

A key part of the puzzle is the distinction between total emission reduction and emissions intensity reduction. While the former would cap total emissions from fertilizer at 30 per cent below 2020 levels, the latter aims to reduce the emissions needed to produce a bushel of crop.

“Unlike some countries, Canadian farmers are already highly efficient in their fertilizer use,” said Proud. “Targeting absolute emissions would severely impact the profitability and competitiveness of farmers and the fertilizer industry, so focusing on emission intensity is the only practical approach.”

In a report by Fertilizer Canada called “Fertilizer: Reducing Emissions, Increasing Competitiveness”, they estimate that a 30 per cent absolute emission reduction for a farmer with 1,000 acres of canola and 1,000 acres of wheat would reduce profit by $38,000 to $40,500 per year.

Adding to industry’s frustration is that, long before these targets were put forth by government, farmers and their commissions were hard at work to reduce fertilizer emissions. For example, they developed 4R Nutrient Stewardship over ten years ago; a science- based approach to achieving the proper source, rate, timing and placement of fertilizer.

As part of that program, Fertilizer Canada conducts a 4R Fertilizer Use Survey – which recently added wheat to its agenda – looking at fertilizer practices across the country.

“There is nothing like this survey anywhere in the world,” said Proud. “It is extremely comprehensive and supports a data-driven analysis of what’s happening in the field so we can speak with knowledge about fertilizer use.”

Industry also spearheaded the 4R Climate-Smart Protocol. Developed with input from Canada’s top scientists in greenhouse gas emissions, as well as leading agronomists from government and industry, the protocol allows for farm-specific measuring and reporting of emission reductions.

As part of the push to minimize fertilizer emissions, producer groups are supporting cutting edge research on several fronts.

“We invest a lot of money in long-term studies on increasing nitrogen use efficiency and fixation in wheat,” said Shannon Sereda, senior manager of government relations and policy for the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions.

One project involves Environmentally Smart Nitrogen (ESN®), which is a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer that maximizes efficiency in early spring or fall. Some of the research being funded by groups like the Alberta Wheat Commission looks at how to incorporate different technologies with genetics to maximize environmental outcomes.

“The result of these efforts is a win-win,” said Sereda. “By optimizing nitrogen use, we can improve profitability for farmers and achieve the environmental gains for which the government is striving.”

Both Proud and Sereda emphasize that another “win-win” is crucial for success in lowering emissions.

“As a commission, we want to stress that farmers must be incentivized and rewarded for the practices placed upon them, like those involving reduced fertilizer emissions,” said Sereda. “Compensation to growers such as carbon off- set payments for the steps they are taking, often involving greater costs, is imperative as part of the conversation on emission reduction.”

While there is no progress without objectives, conflicting goals can really muddy the waters. That is one of the challenges farmers face as the federal government aims to grow agri-food exports to $75 billion by 2025, at the same time as they ask producers to potentially fertilize less. For the fertilizer and crop sectors, it underscores the need to work hand in hand with government going forward.

“Why don’t we start with the initiatives currently in place to reduce fertilizer emissions and collaborate to ensure the targets are realistic?” said Proud. “Instead of just taking an arbitrary figure without understanding the impact on farming in Canada, let’s find a number that makes sense and allows growers to continue building their businesses.”