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Fertilizer cut plan pulls the rug out from under farmers’ feet

Using less fertilizer on farms sounds like a winner. Although fertilizer has a significant positive effect on crop growth, it’s a problem when it runs off the land it’s applied on. That can overload water courses and cause algae blooms and a host of other problems downstream.

The Prime Minister knows that cutting pollutants and supporting sustainability resonates with the public. So in Canada’s Strengthened Climate Plan, which seemed to draw at least some voters to him, his government set a target of cutting emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

That cut would include chemical fertilizer reductions used in crop production by Canadian farmers.

Now, 2030 seems like it’s a long way down the road. But in reality, it’s just around the corner, a bit more than eight years from now.

And given that short time period, is change of that magnitude realistic?

A consulting firm hired by a fertilizer advocacy group, Fertilizer Canada, doesn’t think so. It’s studied the issue, considered a gradual reduction starting the year after next (with a goal of hitting just a 20 per cent reduction by 2030, which is similar to what the European Union is driving towards), and reports that we should prepare for hard times if this reduction and the resulting adjustments are forced on farmers.

By hard times, it means the total value of lost production will grow to more than $10 billion per year by 2030.

That’s a lot of money to take out of the Canadian economy.

It says one of our major export crops, canola almost wholly from Western Canada, will cease to be traded on the world market. Production will fall to the point where we can only meet domestic needs. Corn yield will fall by almost 68 bushels per acre. And spring wheat yields will drop by 36 bushels per acre.

“The analysis for the three crops, as well as any potential impacts for other crops, will significantly impact Canada’s ability to reach its targets for domestic sales and exports of agri-food products, and thereby have a major detriment to the Canadian agri-food economy,” the report says.“Reducing Canada’s contribution to the global food supply by more than 14 million metric tonnes collectively of wheat and canola per year by 2030 would have a major impact on the global supply of food in the future.”

The report says there are “lots of ways farmers can react” to potential economic impacts of reduced fertilizer use, including acceptance of lower productivity. “This would be devastating, such that any plan to reduce carbon emissions would need to be done in a way that the future productivity of major crops is maintained.”

It’s not hard to guess another way farmers can react – they can scream bloody murder.

That doesn’t mean they’re not open to change and cutting emissions. But they don’t want lower productivity, and in fact neither does Ottawa.

Canada counts significantly on agricultural exports for a healthy economy. The Prime Minister can put whatever political face forward that’s necessary, but for his plan to work, he needs another plan to help farmers adjust to these environmental imperatives.

That’s where research comes in – particularly precision agriculture, which uses technology to precisely target the application of so-called inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides.

The Prime Minister has been briefed on the progress being made in fields and labs in Canada and around the world towards more targeted inputs. So maybe he knows something we don’t about the likelihood of the proposed plan working.

If so, he should tell us in some detail, because this doesn’t look well thought-out at the moment.

It’s tough for farmers to take the long view if their government doesn’t have the same scope.

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