Delicate balance: a new approach to fertilizer use in Canada

It’s an important time in Canadian agriculture. A pandemic and the war in Ukraine have proven to many just how important our domestic food supply is. Farmers are being asked to ramp up production, supply more food for our growing population, helping to fill a void left by Russia and Ukraine’s curtailed grain production.

We’re happy to do so.

In fact, many of us consider it our moral obligation to help feed the world. But, at the same time, we’re being asked to do more while lessening our impact on the environment and reducing our carbon footprint. Sometimes, it feels as though we are being unfairly labeled as environmental pirates, which is far from the truth. In our industry, we work hard to improve our land, our financials, and our community generation after generation in order to exist as farm operations.  As with many things in life, it’s a delicate balance.

I’ve had many conversations lately with other producers, grower groups, politicians and policymakers and it’s clear — we all want the same thing.

We all want Canadian agriculture to survive and thrive. We know we are global leaders, environmental pioneers, if you will, leading the world in environmentally sustainable practices. Yet, we can continue to do better. In fact, we all can. We must stop the bickering, the complaining, and the “us against them” mentality. I’m urging all of us to get on the same page, have frank conversations and put our collective heads together, to draft the best science-based policies that will help our industry and the environment.  We need to realize that it will take consensus on global outcomes, but implementing regional strategies to achieve our goals.

First up, let’s talk about fertilizer

Agriculture Canada has released a discussion paper on its Emissions Reduction Plan for Agriculture. In it, there’s an ambitious target of 30% reduction in GHG emissions from agriculture by 2030.

To be clear, this isn’t an overall 30% reduction in the use of fertilizer. As I’ve said previously, that would result in a 30% reduction in crop production (I’m sure you’ve read about Sri Lanka’s experience). What the government is talking about is a 30% reduction in overall GHG emissions from farm practices and fertilizer application, mainly nitrous oxide. Personally, I wish the wording was GHG emissions per unit of output per acre versus per acre.  What I mean by this is we have continually produced more on less inputs, therefore reducing our emissions per metric tonne of output. The issue is based on the Paris Accords, as well as current releases from the Canadian Federal government

Yes, it’s an aggressive target, 2030 is only 8 years away, but I think there are a number of practices that can be implemented regionally to make it attainable.  It will take collaboration though at all levels: federal, provincial, corporate and farmers.

On our farm, we’ve reduced fertilizer use per metric ton of output significantly already over the last ten years on our farm. How? By soil testing, figuring out how much fertilizer is left in the ground from the previous year and fine-tuning the “prescription” based on soil moisture and nutrient conditions. The question we’re always asking ourselves is how do we continue to improve?

Let’s not kid ourselves – it takes work, it can be inconvenient and it costs money. But, it’s the right thing to do. The government has allocated a billion dollars to help farmers increase their use of:

  • 4R practices – right source, right rate, right time and right place. If you aren’t already implementing these practices, it’s time to start. The 4R Nutrient Stewardship approach was proactively developed in partnership with leading scientists, agriculture organizations and provincial governments to reduce agriculture’s environmental impact without compromising farmers’ competitiveness.

  • Encourage more research and development into low-emission fertilizers – the federal government’s Living Laboratories Initiative is researching regional approaches to fertilizer application in Canada – what works in one area, doesn’t necessarily work in another.

  • Invest in soil testing

Other things to consider:

  • Federal funds for innovative practices must also be made available to early adopters who have been implementing sustainable practices for many years. We can continue to make progress while bringing other farmers along as well.

  • Using independent agronomists who are not associated with fertilizer or pesticide companies – this will allow us to get an accurate read of what nutrients are actually needed.

  • Gene editing of crops – this could play a huge role in genetically engineering resilient crops that are resistant to bugs, disease and even extreme weather changes.

  • Increasing the use of alternative sources of fertilizer –  we’ve been using Crystal Green  – a company out of Vancouver – that harvests phosphorus from the sewage treatment process to create root-activated fertilizer.

  • Increase use of biologicals – we’ve been doing some work with Sound Agriculture, from San Francisco, which uses biologicals unleashing the natural power of plants to unlock nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil, reducing the amount of product required.

  • We need to focus on GHG emission reduction % goals on acreage. There are already discussions around caps on funding, limiting per farm participation. Are we trying to reduce emissions or not?

  • We need to continue to encourage the voluntary carbon credit market growth, allowing international companies to meet their ESG strategies with Made in Canada credits.

  • We want to continue to grow production and exports; we need to remember progress, not perfection, is the goal. As well, we must remain globally competitive against those exporting countries who do not have our environmental goals.

All of this said we do need to be careful – we can not recklessly reduce fertilizer use without carefully considering the effects. MNP did an interesting analysis on crop production based on a 20% reduction in fertilizer use and the orange line is concerning. However, remember that the federal government isn’t mandating a reduction in fertilizer use, it’s a 30% reduction in overall GHG emissions from farm practices and fertilizer application.

The federal government’s goal is for Canadian farms to have net zero emissions by 2050. I believe that by working together we can solve this puzzle. As I’ve said before, we need to take a collaborative approach and make our voices heard, so future agricultural policies can be made with us, not for us.

Read the Discussion Paper. 

Provide feedback on the Discussion Paper – submit your answers here.