WESTERN PRODUCER — Most Canadians have never been on a farm, let alone lived on one, which makes more than 98 percent of our population agriculturally illiterate.
For many Canadians, crop production is an unknown concept. Because of this, it’s relatively easy to use fear to influence public opinion on any food-related issue involving agriculture.
Our great rural-urban divide has always fuelled food politics but now, agri-food policies are increasingly being urbanized by an agenda that’s pushing the entire western world toward the precipice of a food security catastrophe.
The Justin Trudeau government wants a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030, which doesn’t necessarily include fertilizer. But producers claim that reducing nitrous oxide emissions can’t be achieved without reducing fertilizer use.
Most common fertilizers contain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Nitrogen is the issue. Surpluses of nitrogen in the atmosphere can produce pollutants such as ammonia and ozone. Too much nitrogen will contaminate soils and waterways and, of course, harm our health. Policymakers have every right to be concerned.
But the federal government wants an absolute reduction in emissions, regardless of productivity or efficiency of fertilizer use. For many crops, Canadian farmers’ ability to grow anything will be severely compromised unless they use more land.
It’s unclear how food prices would be impacted but producing food on a large scale would likely become much less cost-effective.
Aggressive emissions targets will likely lead to more famine worldwide. And, since we trade with the rest of the world, mainly with the United States, our crops would likely become less competitive.
With lower supplies, input costs for food manufacturers and grocers would likely increase significantly, pushing food prices higher. This is one aspect of the emission reduction issue in farming.
The needs regarding food production vary widely from region to region and between crops. Supply-managed commodities like dairy, eggs and poultry will be spared, receiving more for their products no matter what. Most of these commodities are produced in Ontario and Quebec.
Grain production, on the other side, won’t be so protected. Suggested emission targets will transfer more wealth from some sectors to others by compromising the livelihood of many internationally focused farming businesses.
The Canadian fertilizer emission reduction plan points to how farming is losing to urban politics. Activists are successfully using urban-centric artifacts to influence policy issues. Cities essentially want farmers to treat fields like city lawns.
This has been happening as activism has become institutionalized. Interest groups, even academics who have become advocates, will weaponize science to support a narrative that fits with a biased view of what farmers should and shouldn’t do. It’s a reckless way of dictating policy.
Virtue signalling, supporting ideals over fact, is practised by those who likely see their quality of life being affected. They’re also dead wrong. This goes for all issues, but food and energy policies are the ones that will be felt most acutely.
The federal government wants to make agriculture greener and more sustainable. Many of those concepts have merit.
But policymakers are not appreciating how farming has evolved in just the last five years, adopting more sustainable practices.
Farming is a business, and cutting costs is part of doing business. Farmers don’t want to overspread expensive fertilizers.
Farmers are responsible environmental stewards. Incentivizing farmers using productivity-based metrics linked to fertilizer would be more appropriate, and less foolish.
The government can look at other sectors to hit targets but messing around with our food system can be perilous.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.