By Lisa Kopochinski

Earlier this year, Agriculture Canada announced its fertilizer emissions reduction target, seeking a 30 per cent drop by 2030. It also stated that reducing nitrous oxide emissions associated with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use is necessary to achieve net-zero by 2050. 

Despite ongoing confusion, efforts by the government to reduce emissions are focusing on improving nitrogen management and optimizing fertilizer use – rather than a mandatory reduction in the use of fertilizer. 

The Manitoba Crop Alliance in Carman, Man., collaborates with associations, such as the Grain Growers of Canada (GGC), to provide feedback on behalf of farmers and the agriculture industry to the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Fertilizer Emissions Reduction Target Consultation. 

Pam de Rocquigny, chief executive officer at the Manitoba Crop Alliance, says farmers have been on the leading edge of innovation for decades, having shown a willingness to embrace new technologies and make significant investments to improve their operations’ economic and environmental outcomes. 

“From the latest crop genetics to crop protection products and beneficial management practices, farmers invest in tools that are good for their bottom line, their soil, and the sustainability of their land,” she says. “Not only are Canadian farmers on the front line of climate change, their on-farm practices are vital to domestic and international food security.”

To ensure farmers remain sustainable, GGC recommends the following: targeting reductions in intensity relative to production, rather than an absolute reduction; addressing data gaps to ensure the baseline reflects usage patterns and accurately measures emissions; and, incorporating existing best management practices, like 4R Nutrient Stewardship, into the National Inventory Report (NIR).

de Rocquigny adds that governments should provide support in research and development aimed at sustainable innovation and increased production that includes continued funding of variety development. 

Fred Greig, board member with the Wheat and Barley Crop Committee for the Manitoba Crop Alliance and owner of Avondale Seed Farm Ltd. near Reston Man. says farmers are always looking for more efficient products and practices to improve the way they farm. “We use a percentage of the nitrogen fertilizer as ESN, which is a coated product to slow the release in the soil, so it is available when the growing crop needs it,” he says. “We’re keeping an eye on stabilizers and nitrification inhibitors for effectiveness and how they will fit with banding. The added complication is if they will be in line with the upcoming federal government NO2 reduction mandate.”

Most farmers have improved their soil quality over their farming careers by balancing what is best for the long-term improvement of the soil and environment with current profitability. “Economics, costs and expected returns, will drive the blend within oilseeds such as canola, sunflower and flax,” says Greig. “For the next couple of years, we won’t stray too far from this approach. However, the climate change mandate – coupled with supply chain shortages with food included – has made it almost impossible to say how farming will change five to 10 years out.”

Jill McDonald, executive director of the Saskatchewan Barley Development Commission in Saskatoon (SaskBarley), is proud that Saskatchewan farmers have long been at the forefront of innovation in agricultural production as global and early adopters of technologies that have greatly lowered Canada’s agricultural emissions. However, she is not happy with the route the government is taking.

“We feel our government’s current goals – to significantly increase our sector’s revenues and exports within the next decade to help feed a growing global population, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions to reach net-zero emissions by – presents significant challenges,” says McDonald.

This is not to say, she adds, that continued improvement and a sustainable balance is not achievable. But it requires clear leadership, communication and investment by the federal government into research and tools that improve fertilizer use efficiency, as well as demonstrating a clear economic advantage based on a cost-benefit analysis for the adoption of such practices. “Current available methodology to reduce fertilizer emissions benefit the environment but offer little or negative financial benefit on the farm,” says McDonald.

Policies around emissions reductions should take into account that nitrogen fertilizer – as a vital input for Saskatchewan, Canadian and international field crop production – will remain essential for increasing production to meet rising global food demand. “Many farmers are already being as efficient as possible with their use of products and putting into practice the principles of Fertilizer Canada’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship program: right source, right rate, right time and right place,” says McDonald, emphasizing that SaskBarley strongly believes any agricultural environmental policies and targets need to be grounded and supported by science and verifiable data.

“For example, the majority of research done to date on Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers (EEFs) has been conducted outside of Western Canada and involves cropping systems that are significantly different than ours,” she adds. “Further research is needed to best optimize the agronomic benefits of using an EEF in prairie cropping systems. Until then, the uncertain comparative economic benefits of using more expensive EEFs will be a disincentive for adoption.”

Additionally, SaskBarley wants variety development viewed as a key element of a fertilizer application and emissions reduction strategy. Funding for variety development must not be sacrificed for other work within this important area. “New varieties with greater nitrogen use efficiency are potentially one of the easiest tools for farmers to adopt on their farms to meet emission reduction targets,” says McDonald. “Variety development is a tool that is being under-recognized by the federal government to potentially lower fertilizer emissions.”

To the West, Greg Sears, Alberta Wheat Commission chair who operates 2,700-acre family farm, Redwood Acres, in Sexsmith, Alta. grows wheat, barley and canola. 

Like his peers, Sears says policies must be based on science “so that everyone knows what the goal posts are and whether they are actually feasible. With the fertilizer reduction, there has been a series of miscommunication whether it’s mandatory or voluntary and is it actually fertilizer or emissions.”

As for how growers will achieve federal government mandates, Sears believes a portion of these targets can be achieved through the widespread adoption of best practices, such as slightly more diversified crop rotations. “That will go a long way to making the most of the nitrogen we have available,” he says. “There are some things one can do to reduce your nitrogen projects, but a bushel of wheat takes a certain number of pounds of nitrogen. You can’t get away from the math.”

If farmers are left in a situation where they are actually cutting back on nutrients, yields will go down, which will impact the farmer’s bottom line, and the suppliers around the world.

Tools and technologies on Sears’ radar to help solve some of these issues include well-established ones such as the optimal application of nutrients, reduced tillage and an effective use of products and techniques that doesn’t diminish the yield production. He also stresses the importance of growers engaging with government to ensure their voices are heard.

“We have commissions and industry groups that are active in advocacy work, but there is still room for a broader base to get involved,” says Sears. “We have to remember that we are that 1.5 to two per cent of the population, so we need to speak louder and have conversations with politicians and bureaucrats, which are largely an urban-based group. We need to do a better job of telling our story on social media, not just with other farmers, but with the urban population.”