EXCLUSIVE: Feds knew fertilizer targets would harm Canadian farm crop production

This is part 2 of the Fertilizer Files, a 3-part series on what internal government documents show about the Trudeau Liberals’ push to reduce fertilizer emissions. Read part 1 here.

The federal government was aware that fertilizer emission targets introduced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2020 would unfairly target western Canada by harming farm yields, but went ahead with the policy anyway. 

Considering the fact that western provinces account for over 90% of Canada’s canola, spring wheat and barley crops, any slight reduction could upend exports and food supply at a national level. 

Documents acquired by True North through an access to information request show how a web of unachievable expectations are being placed upon the backs of Albertan and Prairie farmers.

As part of the Liberal government’s 2020 climate plan, Ottawa has asked willing farmers to reach a 30% reduction below 2020 levels on emissions from fertilizer use by 2030. During consultations farmers have argued that their existing sustainability practices are being ignored and that there’s little leeway to cut more emissions without impacting their ability to grow food.

In an interview with True North, Robert Saik, founder and CEO of the independent consulting group AGvisorPRO, said that Ottawa’s refusal to listen is a major concern for the industry and, compared to other parts of the world, Canada’s farmers bear a golden standard. 

“(What) really leads us to be concerned is that we’re not getting any signal that the federal government has taken into account what farmers are doing already with respect to variable rates, nitrogen application, etc. These things are very important and they’re not taken into account,” says Saik. 

“We’re actually very effective when it comes to nitrogen utilization, among the highest in the world are places like India or China where their environment leads to a lot of nitrogen degradation.” 

While the program was still being worked out in 2020, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada raised the issue of how the 30% below 2020 level target was likely unachievable for western Canadian farmers without “impacting yields” in a federal analysis on emission reductions.

“It will be more challenging in Western Canada to reduce both direct and indirect fertilizer emissions, due to a combination of lower nitrogen application rates, as well as dried conditions, hence it is less likely that rates can be reduced in Western Canada without impacting yields,” claimed a Preliminary Science-Based Assessment

“Reduction in nitrogen means that western Canadian production will be going down exactly when the world needs us to increase production and we need to do it with the same land footprint and we need to do it by applying technology.”

The notes were undated but the documents released by the department covered the period between Aug. 2020 and Dec. 2021. 

“So this is the thing. Absolute reduction means that invariably there’ll be an absolute reduction in the yield,” explained Saik. 

“Reduction in nitrogen means that western Canadian production will be going down exactly when the world needs us to increase production and we need to do it with the same land footprint and we need to do it by applying technology.”

Although the federal government insists that the voluntary target won’t require a blanket reduction of fertilizer use, the government’s own data shows that from 2005 to 2019 fertilizer use has increased across the country by 71%. On top of that, the government has set goals for the industry to become one of the top five competitors in the global agri-food sector by 2025. 

A variety of region-specific factors like dry conditions, semi-arid topography and lower Nitrogen application rates make it more difficult for western regions to further reduce emissions. On this front, federal officials anticipated resistance from Alberta.

“We should note expected criticism from Alberta regarding (the) fertilizer emissions reduction target,” wrote Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada deputy director Michelle Morrow in an Oct. 26, 2021 email . 

Except the minutes from a meeting with provincial counterparts show that this critical information was omitted. Instead, Ottawa told western provinces that they wanted the agriculture sector to increase its productivity and painted the 30% below 2020 levels target as lenient. 

May. 21, 2021 meeting minutes show how an unnamed representative from Saskatchewan raised concerns about Agriculture Canada opting for an absolute emission reduction instead of an emission intensity reduction. 

“When we are looking at the production and growth targets, there is going to be production increases and when we look at production increases there will be an increase in fertilizer use. Can you help us understand what was the basis to pick an absolute emissions reduction versus intensity?” asked the Saskatchewan government rep. 

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada director Alexandre Lefebvre responded: “The only thing I would add is that the fact that the baseline for that target is 2020 and not 2005. Which is in part to encompass into account that production has significantly increased since 2005. It’s not the same baseline that is normally considered for a Paris accord. This is a comment we hear often. Of course, we want productivity to increase which makes the challenge even more challenging.” 

According to a 2021 economic study commissioned by Fertilizer Canada titled Implications of a Total Emissions Reduction Target on Fertilizer, Saskatchewan could see a 54% reduction in farmer cash receipts or an estimated cumulative loss of $21.2 billion between 2023 to 2030. Likewise, Albertan farmers could lose out on $13.7 billion over the same time period. 

As True North reported in part 1 of the Fertilizer Files, documents reveal that government officials have considered making the fertilizer emission reduction targets mandatory.

Part 3 of the Fertilizer Files reveals how Ottawa considered copying laws enacted in Europe, ones that were so severe they caused farmers to protest and even riot. Watch for it on Wednesday, February 1.


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