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Persuading farmers to cut emissions could be uphill battle

Critics of Ottawa’s fertilizer emissions strategy say producers don’t have a strong enough incentive to lower production.
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Farmers need a genuine incentive to cut fertilizer rates, switch to crops that require less nitrogen or try alternative practices.

WESTERN PRODUCER — In 2019, nitrous oxide related to fertilizer produced about 12.8 million tonnes of emissions, measured in carbon dioxide equivalents.

Canada produces about 730 million tonnes of emissions each year, so nitrogen fertilizer could be responsible for 1.8 percent of all emissions.

The federal government would like to reduce that amount by four million tonnes, which would cut fertilizer related emissions by 30 percent.

“The defining challenge for Canadian agriculture in the 21st century will be to reduce absolute GHG emissions, and ultimately reach net-zero emissions by 2050, while finding ways to increase yields and economic growth,” Agriculture Canada said in a discussion document on reducing emissions from fertilizer.

The government might have good intentions, but some economists and farmers remain skeptical about the plan and the target.

Peter Slade, a University of Saskatchewan agricultural economist and Canadian Canola Growers Association chair in agricultural policy, said with improved crop varieties that use nitrogen more efficiently and other technologies, it might be possible to cut emissions and increase yields.

But that will take time, perhaps 15 to 25 years.

“In the long run, there is (research and development) that could happen to reduce emissions, but I think in the short run any of these policies are going to have a pretty marginal impact,” Slade said. “I would be skeptical of that (30 percent reduction) target…. You need to look at success at meeting any emission target that the government has put out (in the past). That skepticism would be warranted.”

The problem is that farmers (and all Canadians) need real incentives to change what they’re doing. As an example, many Winnipeg residents aren’t going to take a bus to work in January unless someone offers a tangible incentive. Asking them to wait 30 minutes at a bus stop in -30 C weather to save the planet probably isn’t an effective message.

“Thinking like an economist, producers aren’t going to change their behaviour unless they’re really invested in climate change and doing their part, (but) very few of us are,” Slade said from his office at the University of British Columbia, where he’s currently on sabbatical from the U of S.

“Unless you can show the farmers that they are over-using fertilizer, so there is an economic benefit in cutting back or using it in a different way.”

In other words, farmers need a genuine incentive to cut fertilizer rates, switch to crops that require less nitrogen or try alternative practices.

One possibility is paying producers to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

“An ideal program, which isn’t really feasible… would be to somehow measure the emissions that come from each farm,” Slade said. “If producers can reduce their emissions, relative to some baseline, then you could provide them with a subsidy equal to the amount that they have reduced, multiplied by whatever price we’re putting on carbon…. The opposite of a carbon tax.”

The federal government hasn’t proposed such a plan because it isn’t realistic to measure nitrous oxide emissions from every farm field in Canada.

Another possible incentive could be paying farmers to stop growing fertilizer-intensive crops on land that’s better suited for pasture.

“Maybe there is some marginal land, where we are growing canola and applying a lot of fertilizer. Maybe the economic benefit of canola on that land isn’t very high,” Slade said.

The federal government hasn’t mentioned taking marginal land out of production. At least, not yet.

In early March, Agriculture Canada announced $182 million in direct support to producers who are willing to try cover crops and new ways of managing nitrogen fertilizer.

A number of farmers, especially in Western Canada, remain skeptical about cover crops, a secondary crop grown following the harvest of the main crop.

“The thing about cover crops, we farm in a semi-arid climate. There’s not a lot of extra moisture around, especially in the fall,” said Jake Leguee, who farms near Weyburn and is a vice-chair of SaskWheat. “We’ve actually done experimentation with cover crops on my farm. To be honest, we haven’t got any results that would indicate that we need to try them again.”

Ag Canada officials said the broader initiative isn’t about cutting fertilizer use. They want producers to reduce emissions related to nitrogen fertilizer. But the authors of the discussion document seem concerned about the amount of fertilizer being applied to farmland.

“Between 2005 and 2019, fertilizer use increased by 71 percent in Canada, primarily driven by growing fertilizer sales in Western Canada,” Ag Canada said.

In the last decade, Leguee has increased the nitrogen fertilizer rates on his farm.

But there’s a reason for that.

“I would say we’re more efficient with it than we’ve ever been. But our yields have gone up, so that requires more nitrogen,” he said. “It’s as simple as that…. We can increase the efficiency, but more yield equals more nitrogen.”

For now, many farmers are trying to comprehend this emission reduction plan. They’re worried about the consequences because nitrogen fertilizer is the most important input on Canadian grain farms, Leguee said.

“Right now, the way I would see the general mood about this is a concern, maybe a little bit of fear,” he said March 30 from Saskatoon, where SaskWheat was holding a board meeting.

“Because this is something that has a direct impact on our ability to produce profitable crops.”

The plan to cut fertilizer emissions is concerning, but it’s still in its infancy. Ag Canada wants feedback from producers and others in the ag industry so it can refine the plan and programs to achieve the target.

There are signs that the government is listening.

Farm groups have been pushing the government to support the 4R Nutrient Stewardship approach developed by Fertilizer Canada. If a larger percentage of farmers followed the 4Rs — right source, right rate, right time and right place — emissions from fertilizer would drop.

“There is widespread recognition that the principles underlying the 4R practices can reduce emissions from N fertilizer,” Ag Canada said. “Existing data… (suggests) that the widespread adoption of 4R in Western Canada could reduce emissions by two to three megatonnes — or 50 to 75 percent of the government’s emission reduction target.”