Manish Raizada, a plant researcher with the University of Guelph, cites multiple reasons the federal government’s plan to decrease fertilizer use by 30 per cent by 2030 is reckless.
Criticism of the plan emerged quickly from many sectors, reflecting the pushback seen against similar moves in other countries.
The government has not presented a serious plan for how to achieve its target, says Raizada, adding the discussion document it produced was not well-written.
“We’re in this silly generic Four Rs stage, which is again, every farmer knows the Four R’s. I mean, give me a break. A first year undergraduate student of mine could have done a better job on this discussion document. It’s Mickey-Mousey. It tells (everyone) they’re not serious,” he said.
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The Four Rs refer to 4R Nutrient Stewardship, four main practices for farmers to follow when applying fertilizer to fields to make the application as efficient as possible. They include the right source at the right rate, at the right time and the right place.
“So what I’m really afraid is going on, the government has set this target because they’ve signed those agreements globally. They’ve set the target. They’ve not been serious about it. And I think nothing’s going to happen. And farmers are going to look bad. And nothing’s going to happen, because nothing’s been happening,” Raizada said.
For its part, Agriculture Canada emphasizes that the reduction target is to reduce emissions by 30 per cent, not to reduce fertilizer use by 30 per cent. Spokespeople for the ministry say their plan relies on becoming more efficient with fertilizer rather than forcibly reducing it.
“The objective of the national target for fertilizers is to reduce emissions, not to establish a mandatory reduction in fertilizer use. It is intended to be achieved while maintaining or improving yields,” said James Voldock, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada spokesperson, in an email
“The goal is to maximize efficiency, optimize fertilizer use, encourage innovation, and to work collaboratively with the agriculture sector, partners and stakeholders through our ongoing consultations in identifying opportunities that will allow us to successfully reach this target.”
Voldock said that from the beginning of March to the end of August this year, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada held an online public consultation process to guide the approach to fertilizer emissions reduction. The information will be released as a “What we Heard” report in the fall.
Raizada said he believes most people don’t understand how plants actually use nitrogen and how important it is for crops.
“Farmers harvest the sun over hundreds of acres. They are the most sustainable renewable sector in our economy, I could argue. Nitrogen is a building block for chlorophyll to allow that harvesting.
“What many people don’t realize when they look at a plant – they think most of what they’re looking at came from the soil. In fact, most of what they’re looking at came from the air. It came from CO2. Half of the nitrogen that ends up in a leaf makes this one enzyme, the molecular worker of life. There’s just one enzyme that grabs carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and converts it into plant matter. That enzyme absolutely needs nitrogen.
“So nitrogen is part of natural ecosystems. It is a natural element of life. And if you in any way limit it, you’re going to limit crop production, and the renewability of crop production,” he said.
Raizada says a more realistic and achievable emissions target would be a 30 per cent reduction in at least 10 or 15 years, adding the government should have started this process years ago.
“They’re asking farmers now to perform magic in seven years,” he said.
This is making farmers across the country angry, frustrated and nervous, and they are walking away from working on climate change, says Raizada. “The problem is, we need them onboard.”
The government needs to work with farm producers to create a viable plan, and to help farmers with the financial risk of trying new methods, he added.
Voldock says that the federal government has invested a considerable amount of money toward helping farmers try new methods. That includes $550 million in the last year to support farmers as they make changes to fight climate change, including the Agricultural Clean Technology Program, the On-Farm Climate Action Fund and on-farm research.
The government also announced another billion dollars for the agricultural sector as part of its emissions reduction plan, he said.
Mark Ruesser, a vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says farmers everywhere are facing pressures on all sides, with little relief.
“There is a lot of pressure on agriculture to become more efficient. In other words, produce more food. There is no more land being made, so we have to feed a growing population on a land base that’s actually shrinking as it becomes urbanized and changed to other uses,” he said in an earlier interview.
“On the other hand, we’re being told to attempt to reduce your emissions and nitrous oxide, though we really need nitrogen to grow more food. So it’s a difficult puzzle to try and figure out. So it’s not simple. Not at all simple. We’re being pushed from both sides.”
“The average farmer, they’ve got their backs up, right?” said Raizada. “You can just see what’s going on right now. What you’re seeing is a lot of chatter amongst farmers and concern about farmers, there’s even a petition out there. This is all wasted energy and time.”
For example, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers organization is circulating a petition to say no to the reduction target.
Raizada also says the fertilizer industry needs to be prompted by governments to speed up the research in technology that will make fertilizer production itself more efficient and emit fewer emissions.