EXCLUSIVE: Documents reveal feds considered carbon tax-like rule for farm fertilizers

This is part 1 of the Fertilizer Files, a 3-part series on what internal government documents show about the Trudeau Liberals’ push to reduce fertilizer emissions

The federal Liberal government has considered forcing a carbon tax-like “regulatory backstop” onto farmers should voluntary agreements to reduce fertilizer emissions not meet Ottawa’s arbitrary standards – and it could see crop production across the country drastically decline.

The Liberals have been pulling out all the stops in recent months as part of their ongoing efforts to reduce emissions in the name of fighting climate change. Carbon taxes, plastic bag bans and electric vehicle sales rules are just some of their initiatives, but they’ve also set their sights on emissions from fertilizer use by farmers.

The feds maintain that fertilizer targets will remain voluntary and be based on individually-crafted agreements with farmers and industry leaders. However, a Jul. 16, 2021, discussion paper acquired by True North from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada via an access to information request shows the government floating a federal backstop as a “policy option” should all else fail. 

“A number of policy measures could be put forward for consideration beyond just a ‘voluntary agreement’,” wrote Agriculture Canada officials. “A suite of policy approaches will be necessary, and consideration to be given to a regulatory backstop should voluntary approaches not be successful.” 

True North received a document dump from the federal government that covered the inception of the program in 2020 through 2021. Agriculture Canada officials are currently processing another request pertaining to the program’s developments in 2022. 

In an interview with True North, Robert Saik, founder and CEO of the independent consulting group AGvisorPRO, claimed a regulatory backstop would be Ottawa’s way of imposing a wholesale reduction in fertilizer use. 

“A regulatory backstop is their way to impose a reduction on fertilizer and it would mean a reduction in yield,” said Saik. “It would be less profitable, Canada would have less crops, our GDP would lower too.” 

A “regulatory backstop” is a policy that can ensure certain objectives are met should other avenues not produce intended results. It is unclear what form such a backstop would take when it comes to fertilizer emissions, but when the federal carbon tax was introduced it was described as “a backstop” for provinces who refused to implement their own emissions pricing scheme.

First introduced in the Liberal government’s Dec. 2020 climate plan “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy,” the national fertilizer target requires willing farmers to reach an ambitious 30% reduction below 2020 levels on absolute emissions from fertilizer use by the year 2030. 

Consultation summaries show that one of the key concerns raised by farmers groups was the government’s insistence on reaching an “absolute emission” reduction as opposed to an “emission intensity” reduction. The difference between the two is a technical one: absolute emission reductions refer to the total amount of greenhouse gasses emitted while intensity targets measure a farmer’s emission output relative to the production of a bushel.

Farmers on the whole preferred the latter due to several factors, including the costly inputs required to meet absolute emission reductions and federal expectations that farmers increase yields to meet global demand.

“The government has come up with a target of a 30% reduction in nitrous oxide emissions. Categorically I’ll say this, there’s nothing wrong with reducing nitrous oxide emissions. That’s in everyone’s best interest. However, where did the 30% come from? We don’t know where the federal government came up with that number,” said Saik. 

“What’s really missing is the fundamentals of soil science and that is: healthy soil doesn’t happen magically. It happens by growing good crops. Good crops means healthy soil.”

Documents reveal the primary concern of stakeholders was that if the targets were taken on, prospective farmers would have reduced crop yields. 

According to Saik, the federal government could intend to “pull a Netherlands” – a reference to the hardline Dutch 50% nitrogen emission reduction policy which led to widespread protests across the major farming nation.

Included in Annex A: What We Hear Phase One of a Dec. 2021 consultation summary that reached the office of the Minister of Agriculture is the following: “Several agriculture commodity and producer associations noted concerns that the fertilizer emissions reduction target could result in a decrease in crop yields… (This) appears to be in direct conflict with the Government of Canada’s export growth target of $75 billion worth of agriculture and agri-food commodities by 2025.” 

When polled on the emission target, farmers nearly unanimously agree that it would cause food production to plummet. A survey conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses found that 72% of farmers said the target would impact their crop yields.  

According to Saik, the federal government could intend to “pull a Netherlands” – a reference to the hardline Dutch 50% nitrogen emission reduction policy which led to widespread protests across the major farming nation. 

“(They were in Davos) meeting and coming up with their plans and they’re going to pull a Netherlands, jeopardizing our ability to be an exporting nation,” Saik told True North.

“The problem with ideology is that it does not take into account the pragmatism of agriculture. Agriculture is extremely nuanced.”

Another key worry noted in the government documents was that the science wasn’t settled on how to measure emissions from fertilizer use or if consistent measurements were even possible – a shortfall the government is very aware of. 

“Stakeholders regarded the need to address the lack of benchmark data, fertilizer-use data, and emissions data in order to accurately measure actual emissions and progress,” federal staff wrote. 

This is an issue that has been brought up during a recent House of Commons committee testimony by Saik, who described to Parliamentarians how fertilizer measurement benchmarks are still at an experimental stage

“Estimates are based on experiments (small plots, research conditions) and may not be realized in every region or every condition at real scale,” admitted Agriculture Canada, in government documents.

“In some cases, some practices have led to substantive emission reductions under specific conditions, while reversals (increases in emissions) were noted under different research conditions.” 

Even while dismissing the idea that the fertilizer target was a “mandate”, staff with the department left open the possibility for a more strict approach in the future. In an Oct. 1, 2021 email, Agriculture Canada Acting Senior Communications Advisor Sean Meagher states that no such mandate was being considered “at this point.” 

“That would of course be costly, but nobody is mandating anything at this point,” writes Meagher to his colleagues. 

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has even called speculation about mandatory fertilizer reduction “misinformation” dismissing the very real concerns farmers have about further federal regulatory meddling in their livelihoods. 

Part 2 of the Fertilizer Files reveals how the federal government knew that pushing for fertilizer emissions reductions could lead to a decrease in the food supply. Read it here.

Are you a farmer or have concerns about the agriculture industry? Please don’t hesitate to reach out to True North with tips or information.


SHARE The Fertilizer Files: