Glacier FarmMedia – A scientist from the University of Guelph says the federal government is rushing its plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizer.
Other scientists are concerned the plan could contribute to the urban/rural divide where city dwellers view farmers as bad guys who are trying to destroy the planet.
Why it matters: Critics of the federal government’s plan to cut nitrous oxide emissions say it needs clarity and more farmer incentives.
“I’m afraid when you rush things, without a serious plan in place … and proper funding in place, it’s going to cause some harm. That’s my fear,” said Manish Raizada, who studies technologies and practices that reduce the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
“I don’t want all of this to be on the back of farmers, (where) they have to suddenly make changes.”
[OPINION] Fertilizer reductions are possible
The federal government is pushing a plan in which Canadian farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions from nitrogen fertilizer by 30 per cent, relative to 2020 levels, in the next eight years.
Over the last 20 years, increased use of nitrogen fertilizer has increased crop yields, but the use of “nitrogen (N) fertilizer… results in nitrous oxide emissions, a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 265 to 298 times that of carbon dioxide,” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said in a discussion document on its emission reduction plan.
The 30 per cent reduction is a target, not mandatory. Federal officials have proposed several ways to cut emissions, including more adoption of the 4R nutrient program (right rate, right source, right time and right place).
The government is also encouraging greater use of cover crops and improved nitrogen management to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.
Raizada agreed that those emissions are a serious issue but added that farmers need a realistic time frame and sufficient subsidies to achieve such a goal.
“Nitrous oxide emissions are very damaging for the atmosphere. Even the ozone layer. We have to reduce it as quickly as possible,” he said. “But I’m not convinced this government is serious about this.”
The 30 per cent cut might be possible in 10 to 15 years, but only with a thoughtful plan and a “historic” investment of cash on the table, Raizada said.
For instance, if the government wants farmers to grow cover crops, it should pay farmers a specific rate per acre.
Raizada isn’t the only Canadian scientist who has criticized the government’s plan to cut emissions related to fertilizer.
Sylvain Charlebois, from Dalhousie University, has written that Ottawa’s insistence on an absolute reduction of emissions, regardless of the efficiency of fertilizer use, could harm the productivity of Canadian farms and contribute to food shortages.
“Our great rural-urban divide has always fuelled food politics, and that’s not going to change. But agri-food policies are increasingly becoming urbanized by an agenda that is pushing the entire western world toward the precipice of a food security catastrophe,” he wrote in the Toronto Sun.
The discussion around fertilizer and emissions is advancing a viewpoint in which farmers and nitrogen are viewed as threats to society.
“How did farmers become the bad guys?” Raizada asked. “There’s two narratives that need to be reversed: that farmers are evil and that nitrogen is evil. … Nitrogen has become a ‘chemical.’ But nitrogen is a natural building block for chlorophyll.”
In a university news release, Raizada argued that nitrogen is essential for sustainable farming because it helps plants produce chlorophyll and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere
“Without it, plants cannot harvest sunlight,” he said. “What’s more is that nitrogen is needed to synthesize the enzyme that allows plants to convert carbon dioxide into organic matter, which in turn removes it from the atmosphere.”
Raizada recommends that farmers and researchers receive financial incentives for better and cheaper soil testing, machinery subsidies so farmers can split fertilizer doses, and cash payments to farmers who use complex crop rotations, intercrops and cover crops, along with other suggestions.
“Farmers want to become greener but need income support to do it.”
– This article was originally published at The Western Producer.