How geopolitics wants farmers to figure out how to do more with less to create less but more.
Nobody understands the impact of climate change more than farmers, and yet:
“You want us to do what now? But you don’t know how we should do it. Uh-huh. But it’s imperative that we do it? It’s not being forced upon us, or is it? But really, you can’t tell us how we are supposed to do what you want, except that we need to do it. Voluntarily?”
Welcome to the world of Canadian agriculture—yet again “encouraged” to follow rules without the representation or consultation of those whom it affects.
As if it wasn’t already difficult being in the agricultural business with either too much rain, drought, pest infestations, incredibly high fertilizer costs—when you can find it—high operating costs, razor-thin margins, and oh yeah, inflation. And we didn’t even mention the Covid pandemic affecting how crops are picked and distributed. And what about the railroad monopoly not moving our crops to port for our customers on time?
So, what does the Government of Canada want now? It wants you to decrease the fertilizer emissions by 30 percent from 2020 data, with the overall goal of net-zero by 2050.
It’s gotta be done. Voluntarily. But what if we don’t? Are there penalties, or just a sour look from the government, media, and urban consumer, both here and abroad?
But then there’s the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine, ongoing since February of 2022. Russia, abetted by Belarus, is a major global supplier of fertilizer. And grains. Ukraine is a major supplier of grains, too.
The world, aghast at this invasion of a peaceful country, has reacted by placing economic sanctions against Russia. Well, at least many countries have.
India and China, with a combined 2.782 billion people (1.38 billion and 1.402 billion people, respectively), while expressing their dismay at Russia’s aggression, still do non-economic sanctioned business with Russia because, hey, they have crops to grow and people to feed.
Many countries in Africa and eastern Asian countries have relied on Russian fertilizers to help grow their crops. Without it, we can expect a multiplication of the impact upon a global food security crisis already underway.
The ag community of Canada and other countries get economically punished for doing the morally right thing.
The new media buzzword, by the way, is global food security, implying that there is a food shortage and people are going hungry. A new buzzword for an old problem.
How Did This Happen?
Pundits will say that the Canadian government has always found a way to upset the proverbial applecart. And while that sentiment has a basis of truth, it isn’t totally correct.
In the case of a 30 percent nitrogen fertilizer emissions reduction by 2030 and net-zero emissions wish by 2050, neither is a Canadian concept.
Canada has devised its own 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, which it feels is an ambitious but achievable roadmap that outlines a sector-by-sector means for the country to reach its emissions reduction target of 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.
Of course, it is doable—but at what cost?
Conceptually, the whole idea is driven by the United Nations.
The UN believes that climate change will very shortly—if it hasn’t already—make Earth difficult for human beings to live. It’s just getting too darn hot. It not only affects people but the crops we grow.
To achieve a livable climate, the United Nations wants member countries to apply a net-zero commitment backed up by credible actions. Canada wants to do its part.
Countries are pointing the collective finger at greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as a chief culprit in the warming of the planet, and so eventually going to a production of new GHGs as a net-zero emissions goal by 2050 will allow any remaining emissions to be re-absorbed from the atmosphere, oceans, and forests. Or maybe something man-made would work.
Per the United Nations, it said that scientists and the currently available data state that to avert the worst impacts of climate change and to preserve a livable planet, global temperature increase needs to be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Right now, the Earth is already about 1.1°C warmer than it was in the late 1800s. And, if GHG emissions continue to rise, so too will the global temperature.
To keep global warming to no more than 1.5°C—as called for in The Paris Agreement—the GHG emissions need to be reduced by 45 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.
Canada is only shooting for a 30 percent reduction, based on 2020 GHG emission data. But before we celebrate that number, that called-for 45 percent by The Paris Agreement is based on 2005 data.
In April of 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to slash Canada’s GHG emissions by 40 to 45 percent over the next nine years—but again based on 2005 levels.
So how did Canada come up with a 30 percent reduction goal?
That’s what Canadian agri-businesses want to know.
Is it something that other industrialized nations have opted for, and Canada is along because “monkey-see, monkey-do” or is there real science behind that number that makes it feasible?
But there’s feasible, and then there’s realistic.
When Trudeau discussed the decrease in the levels of GHG emissions—all emissions, not just those within the ag sector—he failed to state just how exactly Canada was going to do that.
In his summit address to global leaders gathered virtually to discuss the fight against climate change, Trudeau explained that because of Canada’s national carbon price—about to then increase to $170 per tonne by 2030—the country was poised to “blow past” its 30 percent reduction commitment set out under The Paris Agreement.
Whose Fault Is It?
According to a 41-year-old line from a song by the heavy metal rock group, Black Sabbath, fronted by Ozzy Osbourne, “If you listen to fools, the mob rules.”
The North American ag industry—or at least most of it—understands what Ozzy was singing about. The Canadian government has announced a target to reduce fertilizer emissions by 30 percent from the observed 2022 levels by the year 2030.
Canadian farmers in all crop sectors said that this will reduce competitiveness, drive up costs, and impede production.
Ag ministers in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario also chimed in saying that the target is arbitrary and was imposed without consultation.
Nitrogen fertilizer has long had a finger pointed at it by organic farmers, the European Union, as well as both American and Canadian governments as a leading cause of GHG emissions.
Although the Canadian government hasn’t come out and directly stated such, media and academia have grabbed hold of that assertion and figured that if Canada wants to reduce GHG emissions to net-zero, we should stop applying fertilizer to our fields.
Of course, vehicles that utilize fossil fuels also deliver GHG emissions, so the ag community is doubly cursed. Triply cursed if we include livestock production.
Greenpeace Canada said that 10 percent of all emissions in Canada come from crop and livestock production, with about 33 percent coming from nitrous oxide (N2O). It said that N2O is 250x more toxic than the carbon dioxide (CO2) released from nitrogen fertilizers applied to crop soil.
Per A comprehensive quantification of global nitrous oxide sources and sinks article from www.nature.com, global human-induced emissions, which are dominated by nitrogen additions to croplands, increased by 30 percent over the past four decades to 7.3 (4.2–11.4) teragrams of nitrogen per year.
The researchers state that this increase is the main cause of the rise in toxins in our atmosphere.
So… was this something that Canada was responsible for? No.
The researchers found that the rise in N2O emissions was derived from emerging economies over the past 40 years—particularly Brazil, China, and India.
And yet Canada, being the nice quiet child of the global family that never causes any trouble, is being asked to do as much as every other country to bring the global climate change issue under control. That hardly seems fair.
The World Needs Canada
On August 18, 2022, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI)—a leading independent, nationally-focused think tank headquartered in Ottawa with a stated goal of making poor public policy unacceptable in the nation’s capital—held a webinar: More food or less fertilizer? Policy pain in Canada’s agriculture sector. It was moderated by Senior Fellow Heather Exner-Pirot of the MLI.
It featured the opinions of four expert panelists:
- Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is a Canadian researcher and professor in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He conducts research in the broad area of food distribution, security, and safety, and has written four books and over 500 peer-reviewed and scientific articles;
- Alanna Koch, Chair of the Board for the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS), a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-headquartered organization that seeks to discover, develop, and deliver innovative solutions for the production of globally sustainable food;
- Gunter Jochum, a farmer and President of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, a Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based not-for-profit farm advocacy group dedicated to developing ag policy solutions that strengthen the profitability and sustainability of farming and the agricultural industry, and;
- Karen Proud, the Chief Executive Officer of Fertilizer Canada, an association that represents Canadian manufacturers, wholesalers, and retail distributors of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash fertilizers used in the production of crops that help feed the world.
[Ed. Note: Some of the direct quotes within the webinar presentation have been grammatically altered for easier reader comprehension.]
“There has always been a rural-urban divide,” stated Charlebois, “but it’s getting worse. It’s this divide that is really driving policy.
“A lot of people in the farming community are concerned that what’s being put out by the federal government, myself included, believe that it’s being driven by a total misunderstanding of agriculture in general.”
He continued: “Ag is not really given its proper importance, even though it is important and affects Canadians every single day—it just doesn’t get the attention it deserves which is why we end up with policies that are somewhat misguided by urban politics.”
Although Charlebois was adamant that the stakes of climate change and the need for GHG emissions reduction are important, so too are the concerns of global food security and the concerns of Canadian farmers.
Added Jochum, “I think Canadian farmers are doing an amazing job in upping our productivity. That all happened because of the way our industry operates, the way farmers adopt new technology, and the way the industry steps up when they see a need for farmers to become more productive.
“It has not happened because of government policy. It’s all been market driven.”
He said that he found it very troubling that the government comes in and wants farmers to reduce their fertilizer emissions by 30 percent.
“What’s really troubling, is the numbers that they are basing that on—the National Inventory Report,” revealed Jochum. “Unfortunately that base number that they’re using, they get that from the National Inventory Report which stated it had a margin of error of minus 35 percent to plus 45 percent.
“That is a bigger [range] than the actual reduction that they are asking for,” exclaimed Jochum. “It is very fuzzy math that the government is using, and it makes it very hard to buy into it.”
He’s also concerned about how the 30 percent emissions reduction is to be calculated. “They don’t really have a way of measuring it (the percentage) other than an absolute fertilizer tonnage reduction.”
Jochum was also concerned that the government reduction policy does not seem to take into account those Canadian farmers who are already doing their part—only that they are being asked to do more.
“On our farm, we were early adopters of technology such as direct seeding, minimum tillage, zero tillage, GPS, autosteer, and even automated machine control.
“We already use agronomists, and do soil sampling regularly to see the amount of inputs that we need to use—so we’re doing all these things, and the government is not recognizing some of those things that we use, including the 4R nutrient management program. Lots of farmers are utilizing that.
“So here we are again at the forefront, [and being asked to] minimize the inputs that we need or maximizing output per input that we use.”
Citing trust, Jochum wondered that right now the farmer’s efforts to achieve a GHG emission reduction are voluntary, but what if there’s a policy change? “It’s very confusing, to say the least.”
Communication & Miscommunication
Panelist Alana Koch had served as Deputy Minister to the Premier and Cabinet Secretary, and before that was the Saskatchewan Deputy Minister of Agriculture for nine years. As one of the longest serving Agriculture Deputy Ministers in Saskatchewan and Canadian history, she worked closely with farmers and industry seeking to build and maintain public trust in agriculture by focusing on science-based decision-making and communicating the benefits of modern tools and technology.
She believes that the way the policy has been presented by the government is causing concerns within all sectors of the Canadian ag community.
“We need to be thinking about this conversation from a point of intensity rather than an absolute number.
“We need to be measuring as a productivity function,” related Koch. “If we achieve 30 percent fewer emissions by reducing fertilizer—let’s say by 30 percent overall—we will sub-optimize the system and then have an actual unintended overall negative impact on sustainability, on food production, and we’ll see a huge economic impact.
“I think we’ll see a negative environmental impact,” she continued, “adding to the challenges societally—both internationally and domestic. We’ll see supply disruptions, and I think even further increases in inflation.”
She said that broad targets to reduce fertilizer emissions by 30 percent will result in a reduction in crop yield at a time when growers are attempting to increase production.
“We can’t look towards anything that will look to impede food production,” stated Koch. “We should be looking at incentivizing it.
“And this is where my concern is—the impact of policy…. I always look at it that policy and regulation should provide new boundaries, not barriers.”
Let’s discuss the way the government has been miscommunicating, er, communicating—you know what we mean.
“Of course, there’s been lots of miscommunication and misunderstanding where the federal government is going with this indication,” exclaimed Koch. “They claim it’s voluntary, not mandatory, but their paper, their document, much of the information they put out—it’s not as factual as it should be.
“In fact, it’s somewhat misleading.”
Karen Proud, the Chief Executive Officer of Fertilizer Canada, agreed but said the government is trying to rectify past misunderstandings. But issues remain.
“What’s been lacking in the government’s policy, is an understanding of the impact that this policy might have on our productivity,” said Proud.
She acknowledged that Canadian farmers already have some of the most sustainable farming practices in the world and that their nitrogen use efficiency (how we use nitrogen) is tops in the world.
“We do see the government clarifying what the intent is, and that the government is not after reductions in the use of fertilizer, and that the government doesn’t want to put caps on productivity,” she related. “But you have those things on the one hand, but you still have this 30 percent target.
“Right now, those two things don’t speak well together.”
She explained that it is important that the government does not develop policies like the 30 percent reduction in GHG emissions in a vacuum, because “that is really what we saw at the beginning. “Since the policy has been released, we have seen more and more precision by the government about what this is and what it isn’t. [BUT] I think there’s still a lot of confusion out there as to the exact intent of the government.”
More Canada, Please
Koch said that the world needs more Canada, and who are we to deride that statement?
Referencing global markets—and even ideologies—she said that the world needs more Canadian fertilizer, more Canadian food, and better-defined Canadian policies that allow that to happen.
“Over the past 12-18 months, we (Fertilizer Canada) have been trying to work closely with the government in pointing out our concerns about the policy,” Koch explained. “We did undertake a study to look at potential impacts in a worst-case scenario, and are now undertaking further studies to see what could be achievable, because, in our mind, these policies also need to be driven by data and evidence and not just a number sort of pulled out of the air.”
She understands that the Canadian government has and will continue to clarify what its intent is regarding the GHG emissions reduction policy, that it’s not actually after reductions in the use of fertilizer, and that the government doesn’t want to put caps on farmer productivity. So everyone can unclench and breathe normally.
But, warned Koch, there is still the the 30 percent target alongside all of those things the government wants the agricultural sector in Canada to do.
She acknowledged that the entire situation is a bit of a Catch-22 still.
“I think we need to come to a practical pragmatic solution to reduce emissions, but in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the agricultural productivity in this country.”
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