There is no way around it, according to Darrin Qualman, reducing carbon emissions will require a hard look at the use of nitrogen fertilizers.
Speaking via Skype at the regional conference of the National Farmers Union (NFU) in Portage la Prairie last week, Qualman said the role of agricultural inputs can’t be ignored when it comes to addressing either greenhouse gas emissions or stunted on-farm income.
“A fundamental truth around agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions is that agriculture doesn’t actually produce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s agricultural inputs that produce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “That might seem a little counterintuitive, but if you take a long view, sort of a long-term look at agriculture, we’ve had agriculture for… about 10,000 years and for 99 centuries there was no net emissions from agriculture, agriculture was low input and solar powered.”
It was almost 100 years to the day that lightweight tractors, built with innovations developed during the First World War, first appeared on Canadian fields, he noted, adding the pace of development only picked up steam following the Second World War — as did producers’ reliance on synthetic inputs.
“Those high emissions are really just a reflection of the inputs, we’re maximizing production on our farms and one of the ways we’re maximizing production is by maximizing the inputs that we push into that food system,” said the researcher, who has been working with the NFU in Manitoba to identify strategies for emission reductions. “Most of those inputs are fossil fuel products and nitrogen is notoriously fossil fuel expensive to produce.”
While the official report won’t be finalized until funding uncertainties are resolved, Qualman said there are some broad conclusions that can already be gleaned from the work done so far.
“One of the things we’re concluding in our report is that any low-emission farm and food system is going to be a low-input farm and food system, low-input agriculture, organic agriculture, agroecology, a lot of these approaches is where we’re going to have to focus, we’re going to have to reduce input use,” he stressed.
But the idea of asking farmers to forgo nitrogen wasn’t a hit with everyone.
“I don’t think that’s going to fly very well, perhaps we should encourage industry to develop forms of nitrogen that aren’t going to emit as many emissions,” said Wilf Harder.
However, Qualman was quick to clarify his comments.
“Nobody is saying that nitrogen has to be eliminated, just the opposite, it probably will be with us for quite a long time… what has to be eliminated is this steep upward trend in the use, where it’s been doubling every 20 or so years,” he said.
Lydia Carpenter of Luna Field Farm, and the NFU’s first vice-president of policy, added that the decoupling of livestock and cropping has contributed to emissions by pushing farmers towards synthetically produced inputs.
“I think when we say nitrogen, we’re talking about synthetic nitrogen,” she said. “So we’re not talking about not using nitrogen, we’re talking about accessing it in a way that’s profitable.”
Qualman elaborated, adding that the current reliance on synthetic inputs and technology diverts money away from farmers’ pockets, and into the pockets of big business, while also increasing carbon emissions.
“If you have a farm income graph of Manitoba, what you find is that since 1987 till now, farm input corporations have captured 98 to 100 per cent of farm revenue,” he said. “The reason you don’t notice, perhaps, on your farm that those agribusinesses are capturing between 98 and 100 per cent is because those figures are calculated before we take into account government- and taxpayer-funded farm support programs.”
At the end of the day, lower emissions and higher incomes will both require a more diverse farm landscape, Qualman said.
“We’re not going to get rid of nitrogen fertilizer, but we probably need a lot more diversity, we need more people doing polycropping and holistic resource management and intensive grazing, and then on the other end of the spectrum, we need people who continue to do zero till and use nitrogen,” he said. “But in the middle we need a lot more diversity, because we’ve really devoted most of the acres in Western Canada to one kind of agriculture and that’s a very high-emission form.”