UPDATE: This story was corrected to reflect Fertilizer Canada’s call for a 14% reduction in absolute, not intensity-based emissions by 2030. “We thought it was important to use the same language as the government in the results to show what is possible, which is why we refer to a 14% absolute reduction,” said Communications Director Kayla FitzPatrick. “As part of our recommendations, we are still advocating the government take an intensity-based approach to measuring emissions to achieve reductions while protecting crop yields.”
The lobby group whose policy paper helped trigger a wave of misinformation and conspiracy theories about a supposed federal “ban” on nitrogen fertilizer is disavowing attempts to connect its research to a “freedom movement 2.0” follow-up to last winter’s convoy occupation in Ottawa.
But Fertilizer Canada is standing by its opposition to a federal call for a 30% absolute reduction in nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer use by 2030, first introduced in the Trudeau government’s December, 2020 climate plan.
In the year since Fertilizer Canada released its initial consulting study on the plan, its findings have rolled through rural publications and alt-right media, building a narrative of an out-of-touch federal government with no sense of what farmers need. “Freedom movement 2.0: Farmers hit the final nail in Trudeau’s coffin,” TFI Global headlined in late July.
“Does Ottawa wish to see protests across Canada that would be much larger than the Trucker Freedom convoy protests?” the Frontier Centre for Public Policy asked in early September, noting that Canada has about 200,000 truckers and 650,000 farmers.
“Expect another Freedom Convoy replay if [Ottawa] doesn’t reconsider this ill-advised move,” the centre warned. “This time it could be fatal for our climate-obsessed PM.”
So while the industry’s advocacy has become a keystone argument for farm groups opposing the target, it is also being used by activists with links to a convoy organization that was bent on overthrowing a duly-elected government when it descended on the nation’s capital early this year.
Fertilizer Canada is adamant that it did not intend its report to be used by convoy organizers to drum up worries about an alleged fertilizer “ban”.
“Our research and communications have never stated that the government’s target is a ban on fertilizer—nor have we ever believed this initiative to be a ban on fertilizer usage,” Executive Vice President Clyde Graham told The Energy Mix in an email. “We do not condone any group or organization that manipulates and misrepresents the results of our reports to spread misinformation.”
While “we cannot control how the information in these reports gets used in the media by groups that oppose or support the government’s policies, our reports stand on their own and have been very clear as to their limitations and their conclusions,” he added.
And “no, absolutely not, Fertilizer Canada has no connection to the illegal convoy occupation.”
Modest Cuts in a Climate Emergency
But instead of a 30% reduction in the climate-busting substance, the trade group is pitching a 14% emissions cut, contending that this is the best the industry can do without reducing farm yields.
Its justification for that target plays on growing concerns about food security by misconstruing yield losses due to reduced fertilizer use as inevitable and ignoring promises of government support for farmers interested in reducing their nitrogen use, saving money, and cutting emissions along the way. There is also less agreement among actual farmers that Ottawa’s outreach and listening on the emissions target has fallen short.
“Any farmer who really looks at what’s here will not for one minute be unhappy,” Darrin Qualman, director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmers Union, told The Mix in an interviewlast month.
“Nothing’s being forced. There’s no mandates, there’s no bans. It’s just a voluntary program where people will be compensated if they reduce emissions.”
Those who continue to talk about fertilizer bans and forced reductions in food production are intentionally spreading misinformation, Qualman added. “They know better at this point.”
Target Co-opted by Canada’s Far Right
Controversy surrounding the 30% target stretches back to December, 2020, when the federal government issued its Healthy Environment, Healthy Economy [pdf] plan. It outlined targets for less emissions-intensive agriculture, committing to “set a national emission reduction target of 30% below 2020 levels from fertilizers and work with fertilizer manufacturers, farmers, provinces, and territories to develop an approach to meet it.”
The document says direct emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer have increased 60% since 2005—and are projected to continue rising.
From that point on, politicians, industry representatives, and farmers criticized the consultation process around the plan, questioned the emissions accounting methods, and claimed it threatened global food security. But the criticisms came back with renewed vigour this past summer. With critics already primed by misconceptions, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) announcement in August that included the 30% target as a milestone commitment in Canada’s next Agriculture Policy Framework (APF) set off a wave of opposition, with opponents insisting the target would devastate farmers, weaken rural economies, and contribute to world hunger.
Those messages blended into a broader campaign against perceived government overreach, linking the federal nitrogen target to controversial farm regulations in the Netherlands and Sri Lanka. Critics in Canada were quick to draw parallels with the perceived “fertilizer ban” while glossing over key differences of the other countries’ regulations. They warned that even a voluntary target to reduce fertilizer emissions could have a similar impact here.
Conservative politicians like Alberta MP John Barlow maintain the government’s policy would have a “devastating impact” on farm families, increase food costs for Canadians, and result in a negative impact to the environment, reports the Regina Leader-Post. Other news reports linked newly-minted Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre to the false narrative about a fertilizer ban.
What An Emissions Cut Looks Like
An absolute reduction like the government is proposing caps the sector’s overall emissions at their current level and aims to reduce them by 30%. Proponents say farmers can use best management practices (BMPs) like variable rate technology or enhanced efficiency fertilizers [pdf] to make the cut, while still delivering the fertilizer their crops need. Fertilizer Canada’s original report claimed reducing fertilizer use to align with the 30% target would cost Canadian farmers C$48 billion over eight years.
“An emission intensity approach allows farmers to grow crops sustainably without limiting the amount they can produce,” Graham told The Mix. While “an intensity-based approach ensures that we don’t limit the continuation of crop yield improvement and production growth,” he wrote, “focusing on absolute emissions can impact competitiveness for the agriculture sector and create carbon leakage to other countries.”
But some experts found the report misleading, noting that some of its key assumptions do not reflect the relationship between fertilizer application and crop yield.
“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,” Farmers for Climate Solutions Interim Director Brent Preston told The Mix last year. “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.”
Given the gap between that potential for reductions and the arc of the trade group’s original report, “I don’t know what Fertilizer Canada is trying to do,” he added. “It appears to me that they’re trying to get farmers angry and to scare farmers, and to me that’s not a basis for good public policy.”
Other experts critiqued the claim that the new federal target threatens food security.
“The emission reduction targets outlined for Canadian fertilizer use will not lead to food shortages and food insecurity,” stated a group of researchers at the University of Guelph. “In many cases, we have the ability to positively reduce emissions without disrupting agricultural production. There are farmers today that are doing just that by optimizing fertilizer usage.”
But critics of Canada’s federal leadership are building on the public’s concern about these issues. Despite evidence that cutting fertilizer emissions will not necessarily lead to falling yields, they’re holding onto the claim that “Ottawa’s plan will reduce food output during an affordability crisis.”
“The problem is simple—lower carbon dioxide emissions means reduced fertilizer use, which will mean less food produced,” said the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. “Farmers across Manitoba and in the other Prairie provinces immediately warned the federal government this policy is wrongheaded and would negatively impact food security.”
Impossible or Too Much Trouble?
Last month, Fertilizer Canada and the Canola Council of Canada (CCOC) published a new report [pdf] on the 30% target, maintaining that “a 14% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 can be achieved without jeopardizing food security through the adoption of aggressive, but attainable levels of 4R best management practices (BMPs).”
“4R” is the name of Fertilizer Canada’s voluntary certification program for nutrient management, which aims to help farmers use the right source of fertilizer, at the right rate, the right time, and the right place. The Fertilizer Canada-Canola Council report concludes that reaching a “30% absolute emission reduction without compromising yields requires an unrealistic level of adoption of multiple advanced 4R BMPs on nearly every acre of [nitrogen] fertilizer crop and would cost C$4.6 billion, which is C$3.1 billion more than currently is spent to implement the 2020 level of BMPs over the 10-year time frame.”
“The challenge of reducing emissions from fertilizers to 30% below 2020 levels by 2030 is immense,” the report adds. “Canada will have to balance the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer application against farm profitability, economic growth, and global food security,” and an intensity-based target of 14% would increase farm revenues to help offset the cost.
But the report doesn’t draw a straight line between emissions cuts and food security.
“I don’t think they’re saying that they can only cut by 14% without sacrificing yield. I think they’re saying they could cut by 30%, but they can cut by 14% without significantly sacrificing that income,” Qualman said.
The federal climate plan offers $165.7 million over seven years, far less than the fertilizer lobby’s estimated cost, “to support the agriculture industry in developing transformative clean technologies and help farmers adopt commercially available clean technology.”
But the two trade groups cite implementation costs—not the physical impossibility of reaching the emissions target without sacrificing crop yields—as the limiting factor in the federal plan. And at least one senior agronomist in Quebec has been working with farmers to improve manure management and shift to substitute sources of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to cut costs, make their farms more resilient—and reduce emissions.
Farm Transition ‘Could Be a Landslide’
In March, Jacques Nault, vice-president, agronomy at Châteauguay-based Logiag, said the fertilizer supply crisis brought on by Russia’s war in Ukraine should be a big motivator for faster change.
“I understand the problems of distribution and distance, but a crisis like this one opens up opportunities that have not been seized before,” he told The Energy Mix and Quebec Farmers Advocate in an email. “All of this is also consistent with greenhouse gas emission reductions and increases in soil organic carbon,” at which point the tonnes of CO2 reductions “become a farm’s new product and a new source of revenue.”
So far, those alternatives have been emerging at a snail’s pace. But “none of this is rocket science,” Nault wrote. “If financial incentives are there to mitigate farmers’ risks and open the door to a better future, it could be like a landslide.”
A Canola Council representative said it’s hard to generalize about whether a farm can reduce fertilizer emissions by 30% without sacrificing yields. “It’s a complex issue because the degree to which farms implement 4R practices will vary based on many factors,” they said. “There are large regional differences across growing regions, soils, and crop types, and many other variables such as crop price, fertilizer price, and yield that all impact profitability and vary from farm to farm and over time.”
But Fertilizer Canada’s Clyde Graham said there’s no certainty the 30% target can be reached.
“To our knowledge, there has been no economic impact analysis or feasibility assessment that definitively says we can realistically achieve a 30% absolute reduction by 2030 with no significant loss in yield–both prior to the target being set or since this target was announced nearly two years ago, he told The Mix.
Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau welcomed Fertilizer Canada’s finding that nearly half of the 30% target can be achieved without reducing yields, but did not address the trade groups’ reliance on an intensity-based target. While the report focuses on the fertilizer industry’s own nutrient management initiative, she said, “there are several other ways to achieve the emission target.”