Angry Voices or Political Change Won’t Reduce Fertilizer Emissions by 30%

This arid summer continues. I don’t know what we have to do in southwestern Ontario to get a good soaking rain especially with wheat harvest in the rear-view mirror. Maybe it’s time for my neighbors to pull out the tomato harvesters. That’s always a good way to have the fields inundated with rain. Needless to say, there is lots of reduced yields in southwestern Ontario to the corn crop currently sizzling in the early August sun.

Those are the risks you take in farming as sometimes you win and sometimes you lose based on what the weather does to you. Of course, in modern society the great narrative is the climate change is making the world much hotter and this is accentuated in the 24-hour news cycle. I’m a big believer in the climate change science, but I often chafe at news reporters talking liberally about climate change.  It’s hard to argue with the climate change science, but at the same time we need to be practical about tangible ways to manage the changes that we need as a global society.

Increasingly, the temperature is rising among some farmers regarding the federal government’s plan to reduce emissions from fertilizer use in Canada.  It all stems from a federal government report released in December 2020 when the government announced their strengthened climate plan, “Healthy Environment and Healthy Economy”. At that time, they called for a reduction in absolute levels of greenhouse gas emissions arising from fertilizer application by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030.  According to this plan 10% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions or 73 Mt Co2 in 2019 came from three main sources: enteric fermentation (24 MT Co2), crop production (24MT Co2) and on farm fuel use (14 MT) Co2.  Emissions from synthetic fertilizers accounted for 12.75 Mt.

The government is very clear in their report that this is not mandatory as there are difficulties in achieving this across Canada. However, even though it’s not mandatory they say it is essential that we achieve this goal and that it can be done mainly through improved fertilizer management. They show all kinds of government statistics that reflect the increase of synthetic fertilizer application overtime.

The regional variation is quite stark. For instance, Nitrate emissions are much lower in Western Canada than they are in eastern Canada because of our wetter climate and higher nitrogen rates specially on something like corn. However, even though nitrogen rates are lower in Western Canada there is a much greater land area which means there are greater emissions from nitrogen in that region. Need to say, by 2030 the government is hoping to reduce those emissions across Canada by 30%.

I’m here to tell you that we can do this.  I realize there are lots of angry farmers who do not feel the same way especially in a 2022 environment where same federal government unfairly imposed 35 % tariffs on already doubled nitrogen prices.  There was nothing fair about this, as Russian exporters didn’t feel the pain, but Canadian farmers did and the impact was in tens of millions of dollars across Ontario.  Having said that, we cannot be blind to what is being proposed as if it could be changed easily.  There is not another federal election for over three years from now and even if there was a change at that time the 30% reduction in greenhouse gas levels by 2030 would likely remain.  I think we are delusional if we think political change is the answer here.

In the government report the 4R nutrient stewardship approach which was developed by Fertilizer Canada is put out there as one way of achieving these emission reductions. For review, that means fertilizer as the right source, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.  This has been voluntarily going on in Ontario over the last little while, but it’s not seen any traction in Western Canada.  This along with a few other examples of government gives will help reduce the fertilizer emissions by 2030.

There also could be more innovative ways to reduce fertilizer emissions. For instance, over the period of the last 35 years I’ve written about the agricultural biotechnology revolution. However, essentially what this did was sell a lot more herbicide for agricultural corporations. We have also gone full circle to some extent where there is increased use of pesticides because of resistance that is developed with some of our pests. It is what it is, but what it never was used for was a way to reduce fertilizer use by increasing fertilizer efficiency.  Can you imagine an agricultural biotechnology innovation that would make fertilizer 30 to 50% more efficient across the board?  There has never been an emphasis on that, but in 2022 there should be.

Getting there won’t be easy because you could imagine the resistance being thrown up on the road to legitimately reducing fertilizer usage through agricultural biotechnology. We saw that on the other side with herbicide companies.  We’ll also have sharp political rhetoric from the farm community which needs to be mitigated. Angry voices won’t get us anywhere.  Being practical about this and using tangible methods might.