This story has been corrected. It originally understated Farmers for Climate Solutions’ 20,000-strong membership.
A campaign of misinformation is working to undermine a 30% fertilizer emissions reduction target in Canada’s next Agriculture Policy Framework (APF), says a national farmers’ coalition, contending that recently announced emissions policies actually don’t go far enough.
“We’re happy to see that the federal government didn’t back down from the 30% target in negotiations,” Brent Preston, director of Farmers for Climate Solutions (FCS), told The Energy Mix.
“The science is pretty clear that a 30% reduction in emissions is achievable without sacrificing yield, and while probably making farmers more profitable. So we’re fairly confident that the target is going to stick and people are eventually going to come around to see that the sky isn’t going to fall.”
Negotiations for the next APF—named the Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership (SCAP)—reached a milestone last Friday when federal, provincial, and territorial (FPT) ministers of agriculture announced an “agreement in principle” for the five-year plan. The SCAP will take effect in March 2023 and includes measures that ministers say will improve the sector’s environmental and economic sustainability.
“It will position our sector for continued success as a world leader in environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable agriculture,” writes Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). “It will enable an innovative and productive internationally competitive sector that can continue to feed Canada and a growing global population at a time when rising costs and global food security are significant concerns.”
AAFC says the plans for the next framework will help achieve the five priorities that ministers identified in the Guelph statement released last fall. But although FCS commends several measures announced for the SCAP—like a 25% increase in cost-share funds (roughly C$500 million), $250 million for the Resilient Agriculture Landscape Program, and a reiteration of the commitment to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer by 30%—the coalition maintains that some measures fall short.
“The Guelph Statement released by FPT ministers last fall identified climate change mitigation and adaptation as the number one priority for the sector,” FCS said in a statement. “We are concerned that the agreement reached in Saskatoon last week is not detailed and specific enough to ensure that this priority is addressed.”
(Though FCS writes that there is no guarantee that the increased cost-share funding will be used for environment and climate priorities, Preston said he later confirmed that 12.5% of that funding is specifically earmarked for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.)
But as FCS—which represents more than 20,000 farmers across Canada—is pushing for more ambitious policies to cut emissions, internet and media pundits, provincial ministers, and other farm groups are denouncing the 30% target as a threat to farmers’ income and global food security.
“The Trudeau government’s plan to reduce the use of fertilizers in Canada in the name of fighting climate change is the kind of thinking that globally applied, will lead to skyrocketing food prices and famine,” Lorrie Goldstein wrote in the Toronto Sun.
Much of that criticism references reports issued by industry groups like Fertilizer Canada and Western Canadian Wheat Growers that claim major yield losses and billions of dollars in lost revenue will result from reducing fertilizer use. But when Fertilizer Canada’s assessment was first released, Preston described the report as “deliberately misleading.”
“They’re assuming that if you cut nitrogen fertilizer use, you’re going to have a direct, linear, corresponding drop in output in yield, and none of the research indicates that would be the case,” Preston said at the time. “The research in Canada is very clear that on average, farmers tend to over-apply nitrogen, and you can significantly reduce nitrogen use with either zero or very small impact on yield.”
Although the federal government maintains the reduction is only for emissions, and not necessarily the amount of fertilizer, critics maintain it equates to essentially the same thing and that farmers are already inclined to use fertilizer efficiently.
“I do not know one farmer that doesn’t work with one or several agronomists—soil testing, rotations, nutrient management, chemical applications. We work with professionals to ensure that as our crop grows we are using the least amount of inputs to get the most amount of output out of our land,” said Saskatchewan-based YouTube commentator Quick Dick McDick, in a video released after the ministers’ announcement. He added that farmers invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in agricultural equipment and technology for “mitigating product waste.”
McDick makes an important point in his video, but that point is not true for all farmers in Canada. That difference is critical to understand both why the 30% target is reachable and why the framework needs to give more ambitious support to farmers.
“The farmers who are saying they’re already doing everything they can do to reduce fertilizer use—they’re probably pretty accurate,” Preston told The Mix. “The problem is that there are a lot of farmers who aren’t doing all those things.” He said the data shows that many of the practices that reduce fertilizer waste—like variable rate application and soil testing—are only used by a small portion of farmers.
“Really, what achieving the 30% target is about, is about getting all farmers to do the things that the best farmers are already doing,” he said. “There are a hell of a lot of farmers who could find a lot of savings and a lot of reductions.”
Nevertheless, reaching the 30% target will be difficult for farmers, and the funding included in the announcement may not be enough to meet their challenges in a sustainable way. The high initial expenses for adopting many of the services and technologies to reduce emissions can be prohibitive, and not all practices can be used on every farm. There are also important non-monetary variables, like human capital, that make farmers reluctant to adopt new approaches.
“Some people who have been doing things a certain way for a long time need information and support in order to make a change, even if it doesn’t cost a whole lot of money,” said Preston. In an earlier policy document, FCS called for the next APF to use an ambitious, systems-wide approach that included programs to facilitate farmer-led mentoring and knowledge networks.
While Preston said there will be some effort in the SCAP to address these issues, he warned the framework will be insufficient and other programs will be needed to help farmers adopt better management practices. He added that some existing programs—like the Climate Action Fund, which uses federal money to help farmers adopt better nitrogen management practices—are already in place.
“So it’s already happening,” Preston said. “We just need to keep ramping it up.”