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Misinformation, lack of consultations on fertilizer emissions hurting farmers, Alberta producers say

Alberta farmers say the discussion and misinformation around federal targets to reduce fertilizer emissions are ignoring the voices of local producers and hurting the country’s agriculture industry. 

The federal government has set a target of reducing emissions from the use of fertilizers by 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030. That target was released almost two years ago but has been thrust back into the political spotlight this summer.

Many in Alberta’s agriculture industry say the continued lack of details available from Ottawa is causing unnecessary confusion, misinformation and anxiety among producers who are still reeling from a few difficult seasons of drought conditions. 

“We’re just getting kicked and kicked and kicked, and this is just yet another thing lining up to give us a boot,” said Jason Schneider, a farmer in southern Alberta and a district representative for the Rural Municipalities of Alberta. 

“Producers just want to be partners. They are happy to be part of the conversation, and if there’s ways that they can do better, most are more than willing to. But this whole process has kind of seemed to go the opposite way where it’s been dictated.”

Schneider added that if the reduction strategy isn’t developed in co-ordination with farmers, it could lead to an inadvertent cut in production which would influence both domestic food security and exports. 

“[The target] certainly didn’t come from any discussion with the agricultural sector, said Robert Saik, an agrologist and the CEO of AGvisorPro. 

“It seems like the consultations are an after the fact.… This is what the industry is upset about.”

Jason Schneider, a producer in southern Alberta, says farmers feel left out of discussions on how to proceed with an agriculture emissions reduction strategy. (Submitted by Jason Schneider)

Reduction doesn’t mean fertilizer cap, minister insists

The federal agriculture minister has insisted that 30 per cent reduction does not have to be tied to a cap on use. Further, there is no plan to turn to mandatory regulations to target agriculture pollution from nitrogen — which Saik explained takes 3.3 pounds of to produce a single bushel of canola. 

Agriculture accounted for 10 per cent of Canada’s total emissions in 2019, according to the federal government. Ottawa has committed to bringing the country to net-zero emissions by 2050, with benchmarks along the way including industry-specific 2030 targets.

“While many players in the agriculture sector are already working to improve nutrient management and reduce emissions associated with crop production, fertilizers are responsible for a growing share of overall agricultural emissions,” a discussion paper released by Agriculture Canada says. 

From 2005 to 2019, fertilizer use increased by 71 per cent, which the government attributes to ballooning sales in places like Alberta and Saskatchewan. Canada contributes one per cent of global agricultural emissions, but it has a more emissions intense process for cereal production compared with the European Union or United States.

That paper also cites research that concluded emissions could be significantly reduced by exploring other techniques, like applying fertilizer in the spring instead of later in the fall or adding more pulse crops into yearly field rotations.

Not a bunch of cowboys with chemicals 

Producers in Alberta say misinformation spread by politicians and activists of all stripes about agriculture, the proposed emissions reduction and the protests in the Netherlands are hurting the industry. 

“If you just listen to the information on Facebook, it sounds like we’re a bunch of cowboys running around spraying chemicals and dumping fertilizer on the ground, and it’s quite the opposite,” Schneider said. 

“We’ve cared for this land forever. My great great grandfather broke this land. We’re going to take care of it.”

Saik agreed. 

“It’s in the farmer’s interest, in the interests of the nation of Canada, to do better. And we will do better, but we don’t do better by hammering us over the head with sticks.”

Alberta’s provincial government has also pushed back on the idea of a 30 per cent reduction.

The federal government is wrapping up consultations on fertilizer emissions targets, which are set to conclude on Aug. 31. 

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