Study says billions hang in the balance on fertilizer use

But others say cutting fertilizer-related emissions doesn’t necessarily mean lower yields

Nitrogen fertilizer, seen here in ammonium nitrate form, at a Russian production facility, is a major contributor to crop yield and greenhouse gases.

A recent study says cutting fertilizer use to fight climate change could cost farmers almost $48 billion in lost revenue.

Commissioned by Fertilizer Canada, the Meyers Norris Penny (MNP) report says reducing fertilizer use by 20 per cent between 2023 and 2030 will significantly lower yields of crops like corn, canola and spring wheat.

The findings are accurate, but misleading, according to critics, because the study assumes farmers won’t do things to keep yields from falling such as using fertilizer more efficiently or growing more nitrogen-fixing crops.

Why it matters: Fertilizer Canada says Canada’s plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions means less fertilizer use, lower yields and lower farm income, but others say fertilizer-related emissions can be reduced without necessarily sacrificing yields.

There are many ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to nitrogen fertilizer like nitrous oxide, without cutting yields, David Rourke, a Minto farmer and author of the book A Road to Fossil Fuel Free Farming, said in an interview Sept. 30.

“I’m sure Meyers Norris Penny, or any consultant, can show if you stop using fertilizer and have no other alternative you will reduce yields,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re at the ultimate point of production knowledge in terms of producing foods and reducing emissions yet.

“They’re (Fertilizer Canada) in the same camp as the oil industry and tobacco industry in terms of trying to protect their industry.”

Source: Meyers Norris Penny

Cutting fertilizer-related emissions means using what nitrogen is applied more effectively, Darrin Qualman, the National Farmers Union’s director of Climate Crisis Policy & Action, said in an interview Sept. 28.

“It’s completely unsophisticated and disingenuous to say, ‘huh, farmers have to use 20 per cent less fertilizer and that means 20 per cent less crop,” he said. “In a real-world scenario do farmers just take an unsophisticated view, dial their air drill back 20 per cent and sit there and wait to get their crop smaller? They do a whole bunch of very sophisticated things (to offset it).”

Examples include applying nitrogen in spring instead of fall, knifing it in instead of broadcasting, using slow-release nitrogen and variable-rate applications.

“If farmers had really good, state-of-the-art soil testing and really good agronomic support that worked to help them optimize fertilizer use rather than in some cases maximize it, they could almost certainly shave quite a bit off their fertilizer inputs without affecting their yields,” Qualman said.

Cover crops, zero till and growing nitrogen-fixing crops such as alfalfa and pulse crops, are other options to preserve existing nitrogen or add more to the soil.

“Does the fertilizer industry really mean to say in this report the best thing to do around emissions reduction on fertilizer is nothing? We’d soon be in a place where farmers were the worst-performing, highest-emitting sector in the country,” Qualman said.

“There’s so much that can be done and for sure we can reduce emissions by 30 per cent and of course we just have to.”

Fertilizer Canada, which represents Canada’s fertilizer makers, wholesalers and retailers, supports climate change action, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, its president and CEO Karen Proud said in an interview Sept. 29.

“We just need to, as a sector and with government — the federal and provincial governments — find the right path,” she said. “These sort of lofty targets are all well and good, but they need to be achievable without causing the sort of impact that our study has suggested is a possibility.

“Our main message: We are 100 per cent behind efforts to reduce emissions; they just need to be pragmatic and practical and maintain Canada’s place in the world as an agricultural powerhouse. I think we can do both.”

Source: Meyers Norris Penny

Fertilizer Canada wants Canadian agriculture ministers to discuss the issue when they meet in November, Proud added.

Proud agreed Fertilizer Canada’s 4R program is a valuable tool in making better use of fertilizer and helping the environment. The same goes for zero till, cover crops and other techniques to keep nitrogen in the soil and out of the water and atmosphere.

The federal government hasn’t specifically stated fertilizer use has to be cut to meet its goal of reducing 2020 greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer 30 per cent by 2030, but “that’s the only way to achieve the absolute emissions reductions that the government is seeking,” Proud said. “There’s no other way.”

Proud, however, acknowledged the 4R program and other techniques reduce emissions.

In a followup interview, Catherine King, Fertilizer Canada’s vice-president of public affairs, said those approaches alone might not be enough to meet the federal government’s target.

Fertilizer Canada wants an “intensity-based” target taking bushels of production into account, she said.

In a news release the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) said it was “shocked” by billions of dollars in farm losses estimated by MNP.

“This analysis shows the proposed Canadian changes have the possibility of devastating our agriculture value chain,” said WCWGA president Gunter Jochum. “Farmers don’t need the government to tell them how to properly use fertilizer. We engage crop consultants, soil tests and use the latest technology available to us.”

The federal government’s Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy document issued in March says the government will “set a national emission reduction target of 30 per cent below 2020 levels from fertilizers and work with fertilizer manufacturers, farmers, provinces and territories, to develop an approach to meet it.”

It doesn’t say how it will meet the target, which was set without consulting Canada’s agricultural industry, Proud said. There was no analysis either. That’s why Fertilizer Canada hired MNP.

Having no details on Ottawa’s plan Fertilizer Canada asked MNP to use the European Union’s model to reduce fertilizer-related emissions by cutting fertilizer use 20 per cent, Proud said.

“It’s not a direct correlation… but it’s really our way of demonstrating that before we start looking at cutting actual fertilizer use we had better do our homework and have a look at what that impact may be,” she said.

The MNP study estimates a 20 per cent drop in fertilizer use will cost Canadian corn, canola and spring wheat farmers $10.4 billion a year by 2030, and every year after, Proud said.

If farmers are obliged to cut fertilizer use, it could force farmers to adjust their practices, the MNP study says.

“This report is however, based on the assumptions of continued farming practices, including crop rotation, as they are today to reflect the possibility of farmers accepting the lower production that lost nutrients would have on the production levels of their crops,” the study says. “The assumptions of this report summarize that effect by simply reducing the crop output and thereby presuming there is a direct correlation between available nutrients and loss in fertilizer use and impact on crop production.”

Fertilizer Canada’s members would presumably lose money too if fertilizer use decreased, but the study doesn’t report on that. When asked whether Fertilizer Canada’s position was also motivated by the potential negative impact on members, Proud replied: “Yeah, I mean, what’s good for farmers is good for the fertilizer sector. So I think we all have a common goal to make sure we have a thriving and growing agricultural sector in Canada.

“I think we all have a stake in getting this right and making sure that we do have a balanced approach for the economy as well as for the environment.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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