If you look into certain corners of Canadian social media, you’ll see plenty of talk about how the World Economic Forum is planning to steal farmland and starve people across the world into submission for some version or other of the “great reset.”
If you look at most other corners, you’ll see nothing of the sort.
The latest political flareup centres around the federal government’s plan to try and cut greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizer on farms across the country by 30 per cent. It’s a voluntary — and ambitious — target that’s focused on more efficient use of fertilizers and farming techniques. But it’s being spun into a narrative that the government is overstepping with mandatory reductions in fertilizers that will ultimately lead to less food, higher costs or worse.
The false controversy masks the reality of a complex debate about how to achieve the targets, what impact it will have on farmers and the crops they grow for Canada and beyond.
Nitrogen is a naturally occurring element but humans, being what they are, developed a process to create more nitrogen than naturally occurs in order to encourage more plant growth for crops.
Farmers use a lot of it — particularly in Canada — and it’s impacting the climate.
The federal government wants to reduce overall emissions from the application of fertilizer on fields and any runoff — not emissions tied to how much is being produced, also known as emissions intensity.
The government says the goal is not to enforce any mandatory reduction in the use of fertilizers, but to “maximize efficiency, optimize fertilizer use, encourage innovation and to work collaboratively with the agriculture sector, partners and stakeholders in identifying opportunities that will allow us to successfully reach this target.”
Some farmers feel there hasn’t been adequate consultation and they’re worried the government isn’t taking into consideration work they’ve already done to reduce emissions and protect the land. Others worry the government wants reduced emissions at the same time it’s calling for increased agricultural production.
One thing feeding the current rhetoric is a lack of information on what exactly the government’s plan will involve.
Consultations were open until Aug. 31 and the government has put out a discussion paper for stakeholders to provide their input. This follows informal consultations the government says it undertook in March 2021.
Nitrogen fertilizer is a critical part of contemporary agriculture. Farmers would be unable to grow the staggering amounts of food they do without it. Its continued use is not in dispute.
The problem is it can also have a big impact on air, water and climate.
Nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
When it flows into waterways, it can cause toxic algae blooms. When in the air, it can add to air pollution and smog. It is also unique in that it is a source of all three major greenhouse gases, according to a recent report from the National Farmers Union — nitrous oxide in its use, carbon dioxide in its production and methane from the natural gas that is its source material.
Beyond its impact, use of nitrogen fertilizers has increased significantly, particularly in Canada, which ranks as the eighth largest consumer of nitrogen fertilizer, according to Nutrien, a Canadian fertilizer company based in Saskatchewan.
The federal government says fertilizer use in Canada increased by 71 per cent between 2005 and 2019 but the amount of emissions across the country varies considerably — with higher emissions in eastern Canada compared to the prairies.
The National Farmers Union says there are several factors that it believes contributes to the rise in use but in the Prairies the primary cause is applying higher rates of fertilizer each year to increase yields.
The voluntary measures were first mentioned by the federal government in 2020 and didn’t cause much of a ripple. There were no details on what it all meant and that, combined with partisan rhetoric and policies in Europe, fed a social-media sphere ripe with misinformation and disinformation.
A voluntary 30 per cent emissions reduction target was twisted by opponents into a mandatory 30 per cent reduction in fertilizer use. And that fit nicely with theories of an elite conspiracy to seize farmland, impose climate restrictions for elite gain and — taking it one step further — even force us all to eat crickets.
That contrasts against an issue that is complex and in-depth and that could have broad implications that have nothing to do with crickets if done wrong.
“I think the biggest issue isn’t the science around it. I think there’s the science there to say that, yes, that we can do this. It’s adoption, and the adoption is in many respects just tied into the politics of it,” Richard Farrell, a professor in the college of agriculture and bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan, says. He specialized in soil for decades and now finds himself in the middle of the latest cultural storm.
But that’s not to say there aren’t valid reasons for concern.
“I’m confident that agriculture will always solve the problems that come our way except when it comes to government policy,” says Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel, a wheat farmer in Saskatchewan and a director of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers — an agricultural organization that is partially sponsored by fertilizer companies.
“That is my number one risk. It is the thing that keeps me up at night.”
Jolly-Nagel is not against the move to reduce emissions but she worries about governments and their shifting priorities. She resents the fact the government isn’t taking into consideration the amount of work farmers have done to reduce their emissions and protect the land.
She says farmers’ decisions are often made considering the long-term benefits.
Farming is a complex mix of work, science and business that has to come together to produce crops while making money. Jolly-Nagel worries about being able to navigate changes in a short timeline.
She says innovation costs money — and contemporary farming is both expensive and high tech — but she also doesn’t want to be beholden to government funds for her livelihood.
“It doesn’t drive efficiency, innovation or entrepreneurial spirit to be held captive by payments that come from the government,” she says. “Look at how fast governments of the day change their priorities.”
Darrin Qualman, the director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmers Union, and the author of its recent report on fertilizer use and risks, says there are also contradictory mandates from the federal government.
“The government really is pushing for increased exports, which leads to increased production, which leads to increased input use, and its input use that really determines emissions,” he says.
“So this high output high input system that the government is pushing is also a high emission system.”
The farmers union supports the move to reduce emissions but says it’s critical for farmers to be able to get off the treadmill that consistently forces them to produce more — whether it be government export targets or the need to pay for increasingly expensive fertilizer, seed, land and equipment.
That will require hard conversations about how much farmers can grow and the validity of moves to grow more crops for livestock and for biofuels.
Qualman says farmers will need the support of the government to achieve results.
Despite growing concentration of farms in fewer hands and the rise of farmland investors, farming is still a constellation of tens of thousands of independent operations spread across a huge landmass.
Emissions will also vary widely depending on the time they are measured and the location. Farming in Saskatchewan is vastly different from farming in Ontario. So too are the emissions.
So how do you quantify any of this?
“I think where we’re slowly moving to, is to take all of this data from across the country under different environmental conditions and everything, and we’re starting to feed this data into machine learning and artificial intelligence,” Farrell, the soil scientist, says. With that data, you can say “under these conditions, using these practices, this is what you can expect in terms of emissions reductions,” he says.
But, when it comes to farming emissions, “you can’t go take a single measurement and expect that that’s going to give you an answer,” Farrell adds.
That feeds back into the voluntary nature of the plan and the reason the measures essentially boil down to a collective action problem — the government has to ensure that what it’s proposing is something farmers will see as a net benefit and want to participate in.
If enough farmers continue to pursue efficiencies that reduce emissions, the overall emissions from agriculture will decline.
“A mistake that we made early on doing some of this work was the fact that we separated out environmental from agronomic benefits. And it’s always seemed like, when you do that, and you talk to people about it, it always seems like you’ve got people thinking, ‘Oh, you’re asking us to do more, it’s going to cost us more,’ ” Farrell says.
“When the reality is by coupling everything together, the message that we’re trying to get out, if you follow best management practices, you get emissions reductions.”
Many of the solutions, he says, are already being practiced and involve the proper application of fertilizer at the right time and in the right situation, or the use of high-efficiency fertilizers, which cost more but require less application.
In the end, he says, researchers will have to come up with a suite of best practices that can be referenced for the time and place they’re needed. He thinks it will be relatively easy to shave off the first 10 per cent, a little more challenging for the next 10 per cent and more difficult to get to the final reductions.
There is a direct correlation between the amount of fertilizer and the yields farmers can pull from their fields. It’s the reason Canada is able to grow so much food and to increase its exports.
So, with news of disrupted grain harvests in Ukraine and food shortages in Sri Lanka and famine in the Horn of Africa, the prospect of interfering with global food supplies is prime fear fodder and could be one of the reasons a conspiracy theory about forcing consumers to eat crickets rather than crops or livestock has taken hold.
“It’s not that there’s not enough food tonnage in the world, it’s that the people that are hungry are poor and their poverty keeps them out of the market,” Qualman says.
He says if there are concerns about global food supplies, producers and governments need to take a hard look at the amount of crops fed to livestock, the high levels of food waste, the push for more processed foods and incentives for biofuels.
The federal government estimates 20 per cent of the food grown, raised, caught or harvested in Canada isn’t eaten.
“It’s not like we’re maximizing inputs into the system to maximize actual food out the other end to feed actual people,” Qualman says. “What’s coming out of our acreage is being used for a lot of purposes other than feeding people.”
With food costs rising, the plan would have to be able to incorporate best business practices with emissions reduction as in the hopes of bringing costs down through efficiencies while not impacting yields.
“I think there’s a lot of things coming into play now, to sort of take a systems approach to everything. So rather than just say we’re going to look at just one aspect, we’re trying to take that systems approach and look at things on a bigger scale. And that’s what it will take to do it,” Farrell says.
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