Canada’s Nitrogen Emissions from Fertilizer: A Discussion Paper
Written by: Larry Martin
Agri-Food Management Excellence Inc.
Canada’s government wants to reduce Canadian emissions from fertilizer, especially nitrous oxide (N2O), by 30% from its estimated 2020 level by 2030.
Government’s Identification and Documentation of the Problem
Agriculture and Agri-food’s (AAFC) most recent discussion paper on the subject identifies the target, estimates Canada’s past emissions, addresses ways reductions can be accomplished, focusing on the 4R approach to fertilizer use, and asks for input from interested parties about future policy direction. The subject is important because nitrogen oxide is more than 250 times as toxic to the environment as carbon dioxide. On the other hand, nitrogen is essential for plant photosynthesis and is the basic element in proteins. Complicating matters further is the fact that demand for food is growing at an unprecedented rate and Canada is well-placed to become a more important supplier of food, which will likely require more nitrogen.
The AAFC discussion paper estimates that Canada’s N2O emissions increased by 54% from 2006 to 2019 to 12.75 megatonnes (million tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, about 1% of world N2O emissions. So, the 30% reduction target is around 4 million megatonnes annually.
The 4R’s are explained in the paper and in a paper by Fertilizer Canada as:
- Right source – matching the right type of fertilizer to crop needs.
- Right rate – matching the amount of fertilizer to crop needs.
- Right time – making nutrients available when crops need them.
- Right place – placing nutrients where crops can make the best use of them.
A number of practices can be (and are being) used by farmers to achieve the 4R’s. These include practices such as variable rate technology, adjusting crop mixes to those requiring no or less nitrogen, not applying fertilizer in the fall when there is the maximum time and conditions for runoff and leaching, applying fertilizer at appropriate times during crops’ growing periods so the right rate is available at the right time, etc.
The discussion document also suggests other practices that could reduce emissions from synthetic fertilizers such as replacing them with manure, compost or digestates, development of more efficient fertilizer products, increased use of cover crops, etc.
In its latest discussion paper and in several statements by the federal Minister of Agriculture, the government emphasizes that the target is voluntary and that the intent is to reduce emissions, not to reduce fertilizer use.
The Agricultural Sector’s Responses to the Proposal
To say the least, many in the ag sector are less than enthusiastic about this proposal and, especially, about how it has been handled. The responses fall into at least the following categories:
- Being blind-sided with a 30% target for which no justification is provided. Many farm and agribusiness leaders indicate that they were blind-sided by the proposal when it first appeared. There was apparently no consultation with people in the sector beforehand. Blind-siding was a strong theme in the discussion by all three of the MacDonald-Laurier Institute sector panelists in its recent webinar on the subject. In particular, there is no justification for the thirty percent target. It seems to just appear. Robert Saik, a well-known Alberta agricultural entrepreneur, expresses this well as quoted by Alice McFarlane in Lethbridge media, “Where did the 30 per cent number come from? I would like to know where the hell the number came from. Why not 25 per cent, why not 20? Where did the number come from?” Echoing many other leaders, he also said Canadian farmers already have a great track record for nitrogen efficiency use compared to other countries.
There are also serious and consequential measurement issues in calculating Canada’s emissions (discussed below), some of which have already been changed after finally beginning to listen to people in the sector. This and the fact that the agricultural sector was blindsided by no consultation creates widespread suspicion that the initiative was inspired by environmentalists who convinced government there is a problem without thorough examination and understanding of the evidence. In turn, this creates the impression that the policy is foreordained and will eventually gravitate to limits being placed on the amount of nitrogen applied, despite the denials of the federal Minister and others.
- As a corollary to the foregoing, some feel the approach and its faulty analysis makes agriculture appear to be irresponsible when some farmers are already using the 4R practices and contributing to improved environmental performance. Many defend farmers as good stewards of the land who themselves benefit from good environmental practices. Fertilizer Canada conducted surveys the results of which suggest that 10% of farmers who farm 25% of the farmland are using at least some part of the 4R’s. Discussions between individual farmers and this writer yields comments like “variable rate technology sells itself”, and “with careful soil testing and appropriate adoption of 4R technology, we are significantly reducing our nitrogen application, and improving our profits while reducing our environmental impact.”
- Measurement in the AAFC discussion paper is poor at best and misleading at worst. AAFC has already changed their measurement methodology: originally, they said Canada’s emissions increased by 64% from 2006 to 2019, while the current version says 54%, which is many megatonnes less. In the Macdonald-Laurier webinar on the subject, the President of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers said that the model AAFC uses to calculate Canada’s emissions has a standard error of 35%, which is greater than the 30% target. Again, there is no explanation for how or why the target was chosen, especially based on suspect estimates, or why it is an absolute number rather than an efficiency measure. Throughout the current discussion paper, AAFC acknowledges that there are likely errors in the measurement and lack of knowledge about the subject. For example, the discussion paper contains the following at footnote 4.
“Because the FAO draws on data from many countries there may be consistency issues in measurement methods. Thus, measures and rankings should be seen as indicative of Canada’s relative performance internationally and should not be considered definitive. Data courtesy of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). FAOSTAT – Emissions Intensity data.”
In particular, it appears, as reported by Real Agriculture, that the measurement does not take into account the progress already made by the adoption of improved 4R processes by Canadian farmers. And, when the estimated emissions were lowered because of the change in method, the target was not, even though it is based on a method the results of which “should not be considered definitive.” If this is so, then both Canada’s emissions and the reduction target are overstated.
- Lack of context. The discussion document addresses the environmental issue as if it exists in a vacuum unrelated to other issues. The world doesn’t work like that say the agricultural people. There is huge concern, especially in the past two years about the cost and availability of food in the face of increased demand from a growing and more affluent population, adverse weather events in various producing countries, and the war in Ukraine. A number of African countries are currently in or on the brink of famine. (reliefweb.int provides a vivid example of drought and famine in Somalia). The world will need much more food in the future, especially if poorer countries continue to have income growth: demand growth is driven by both population and income. More income allows improved and richer diets which may have greater impact on demand than population growth.
Canada is well positioned to contribute to increased food production. Ironically, this is due in part to climate change which increases Canada’s growing season and increases rainfall in some areas. There is no consideration in AAFC’s discussion paper about how nitrogen use and nitrogen emissions mesh with the overwhelming reality of the need for more food. The dilemma produced by this omission is understanding that food production is essentially a product of the amount of land used, yields and how land is used. The amount of agricultural land in the world is shrinking, so yields are likely the main source of increased production in the future.
Ironically, the major way to increase crop land would be to reduce land devoted to forestry, which would, of course, reduce environmental performance. This emphasizes the role of yield, leading many commentators to suggest that an absolute tonnage emission objective is misguided and that the objective should be improvement of nitrogen efficiency.
This discussion leads to an enormous set of questions: How does the unexplained 30% target measure up against more food production? What is the benefit/cost analysis of 30% fewer emissions in Canada, which would equate to 0.03% of world emissions using AAFC’s questionable data, if the reduction is achieved by producing fewer tonnes of wheat, canola, corn, etc.?
I don’t know the answers to these and other questions, but neither does AAFC because they failed to ask them.
- Lack of trust. Being blind-sided with no prior consultation has created a growing atmosphere of distrust between many farmers and the current government. The President of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers also cites the early declaration that the maximum tax on carbon would be $50 per tonne, only to see that raised after an election as another source of mistrust. There are other actual and perceived grievances that the agricultural sector has with a government that many believe doesn’t appreciate the importance, contribution and potential of the agricultural sector. As a result, all the assurances the Minister and others offer about the target being voluntary or a notional guideline tend to fall on ears that can no longer hear.
Implications and Thoughts on Moving Forward
As is usually the case when a policy initiative is poorly done, the major result is heaps of energy and time wasted on useless debates about superficial issues and a lack of focus on the important ones. One only has to Google “Canada’s nitrogen emissions policy” and see the headlines that pop up. These range from “Trudeau’s nitrogen policy will decimate Canadian farming” to “Canada’s push to reduce fertilizer emissions is causing outrage and fueling conspiracy theories” to “U of Guelph scientist slams fertilizer emissions plan” to “Plans to Cut Fertilizer Emissions Will Not Threaten Food Security”. Interestingly, the latter two are based on comments by people from the same university, suggesting they are at odds.
People in the sector are busily defending the sector and attacking the government. People in government are busily defending the policy and denying that there is a conspiracy afoot. Neither is productive. Neither address the underlying issues, though there is some learning to be gleaned among all the defensiveness. For example, it is interesting to learn surveys show that 10% of Canadian farmers representing 25% of its farmland are using some components of 4R processes and that many of the practices are profitable, especially at current fertilizer prices. But using this information as evidence of the sector’s stewardship overlooks an important question – if they are profitable processes and farmers are good stewards, why are only 10% using them? And if they are profitable processes, what needs to be done to convince other farmers to adopt them?
Similarly, while von Massow, Weersink and Wagner-Riddle, likely correctly, point out that the policy will probably not affect food security, their apparent attempt to tone down the debate fails to address the extremely poor process, measurement and deserved lack of trust that fuels the sector’s response to it.
As a person who knows something about agriculture, I’m amazed at the scope of the reactions and the amount of misinformation that is being generated. One can only wonder what is happening in the minds of city dwellers, with little knowledge of the complex subject matter, but who will be involved in the decision-making process about this policy and must pass judgment based on the current information.
To repeat, this is policy very poorly introduced and documented. Its results remind me of some of the negative and un-useful debates and initiatives that have dominated US politics in recent years. Canada should be better than this. The acrimony could easily have been avoided by a good process.
It is also another in the series of odd events following the Barton report. Dominic Barton, once Canada’s ambassador to China, wrote a report in 2017 explaining why agriculture and food has the potential to be a key element of growth for Canada in the future, and making the case to develop an aggressive strategy to make that happen. Many in the sector waited with baited breath to see the plan to implement Barton’s recommendation.
Not only has no such plan come forward, but what has come forward is initiatives like this that threaten to further diminish agriculture’s role, with no explanation for why the opportunities are not being seized.
In the current process, AAFC has recently solicited input into the discussion from interested parties and will likely have another round of “consultations”. Many people in the sector regard the normal government consultation process as exercises in convincing people of what the government already decided to do. With the controversy that has been created, and given the importance of this issue, especially when placed in the context of the food supply problem and Canada’s potential to become a powerhouse supplier of food to the world, this is too important to continue down that well-worn path.
Thirty years ago, when Canada was entering NAFTA and a revised WTO, both Conservative and Liberal governments brought together representatives from the sector into a series of task forces. Members of all the task forces represented a range of interests and opinions on the subjects they were charged with examining. The overall objective was to make recommendations to government and members of the industry about the changes needed to compete more successfully in the emerging market reality. Those processes, in addition to including leadership from the sector, were also transparent and weren’t driven by the bureaucracy. They were driven by those involved in and those affected by the sector’s success of lack thereof.
Those of us who were involved in that process knew that a good policy-making process normally starts by identifying a potential problem. Where there are potential conflicts or synergies between it and others, as in this case with the clear relationship between environment and food supply, the relationships are identified. Accurate measurement of the scope of the problem is done. Alternative potential solutions and their estimated positive and negative effects are analyzed, including the question of whether some policy instruments can contribute positively to both problems. Trade offs, then, between policy objectives and between potential instruments are analyzed and identified. Those potentially affected are consulted throughout the process. Transparency is part of all the processes.
The results of that exercise were significant. Participants in the process were held responsible and were accountable for using the foregoing analytic process. Much was learned. Government listened and made changes. Unlike that process, the current one does not display many of the characteristics identified above.
Now we are at another point in time when agriculture and food is facing new major forces. Demand growth was mentioned above. Obviously, climate change is another. New agricultural giants have emerged such as Brazil, Argentina, Russia and Ukraine before the war, and even India.
The playing field is significantly altered: there are changes in the rules, players, products, production processes, and our understanding of the environmental as well as economic consequences of how we conduct ourselves. Barton and others have shown Canada’s potential in this evolving situation. Instead of a questionable and partial exercise that fails to consider most of the factors mentioned above that are changing, it would appear that the time is right to do a thorough examination of where this sector should be going and how to ensure it gets there. Doing so should involve and be led by the best minds in the agri-food sector, environmentalists, and consumers.
Agriculture and Agri-food Canada; Discussion Document: Reducing emissions arising from the application of fertilizer in Canada's agriculture sector, Ottawa, Aug 16, 2022.
Alice McFarlane, Canada’s proposed fertilizer emissions reduction target questioned, Lethbridge News Now, August 23,2022.
Barton, Dominic, UNLEASHING THE GROWTH POTENTIAL OF KEY SECTORS, ADVISORY COUNCIL ON ECONOMIC GROWTH. February 6, 2017.
Bexte, Kean, Trudeau’s nitrogen policy will decimate Canadian farming, The Counter Signal, July 8, 2022.
Fertilizer Canada; Emissions Reduction Initiative Report, Ottawa, May 14, 2022.
Macdonald-Laurier Institute, More food or less fertilizer? Policy pain in Canada's agriculture sector, Panel Discussion, August 18,2022.
Raizada, Manish, quoted in Arnason, Robert, U of Guelph scientist slams fertilizer emissions plan, Western Producer, August 22, 2022.
Real Agriculture, New methodology sees Canada report lower fertilizer emissions (while still not accounting for on-farm mitigation practices), May 9, 2022.
Von Massow, Michael, Alfons Weersink, Claudia Wagner Riddle, Plans to Cut Fertilizer Emissions Will Not Threaten Food Security, UG News, August 25, 2022.