Sask academic says Trudeau's fertilizer target is 'political,' not based on 'factual information'

Stuart Smyth boldly says that Environment and Climate Change Canada 'doesn't have the agriculture industry's best interests at hand.' He also said their fertilizer targets are merely an appeal to voters without science to back it up.

Sask academic says Trudeau's fertilizer target is 'political,' not based on 'factual information'
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A University of Saskatchewan professor is concerned that emotion drives the federal government's fertilizer emissions reduction target instead of empirical data, which he has thanks to a regional study.

Stuart Smyth, associate professor in agricultural and resource economics, claimed Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) did not use factual information when setting a 30% fertilizer reduction target.

"If they're just looking at total pounds used … with the amount of land we're farming, the only way we'd achieve that is to farm less land or use less fertilizer," said Smyth. "There's more fertilizer being used because we're farming more acres."

The concerns from academics come a month after the Trudeau Liberals announced its Sustainable Agriculture Strategy (SAS). They renewed their commitment to bolster agriculture's "environmental performance and sustainability." 

The feds desire the industry to "remain competitive" in a net-zero environment by promoting climate resiliency.

Trudeau's reduction target — first announced in 2020 — adds additional strain on farmers because while a reduction up to 15% is possible using existing efficiency methods, the remaining cut would have to come from reduced fertilizer use. 

A Saskatchewan study on crop production and fertilizer use is going through peer review and will likely be published this spring. But the province and others have the data they claimed to have used in discussions at the recent climate change meetings in Egypt and Montreal.

After attending one of the meetings, Smyth condemned the influence ECCC has over Agriculture Canada.

"Typically, Ag Canada has had far more ability to discuss policies and regulations related to the environmental aspects of agriculture," he said. "But I'm seeing that shift now, and Environment Canada is [directly] regulating the agricultural aspects of environmental regulations." 

Smyth boldly stated that ECCC "[doesn't] have the agriculture industry's best interests at hand." He also said their fertilizer targets are merely an appeal to voters without science to back it up.

In a statement, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers (WCWG) said the Trudeau Liberal's 'aggressive' GHG policies, including the 'punishing' carbon tax and 'voluntary' limit on fertilizer use, have them concerned these consultations may "foreshadow another round of intrusive regulations that hurt consumers, decreased production, and amplified already extreme food inflation."

"The government has stated that it's a voluntary goal. However, they have also said that not meeting this target is not an option," said Gunter Jochum, president of the WCWG.

"Will the proposed emission cut reduce greenhouse gasses? [It] will reach approximately 0.0028% of total greenhouse gasses in Canada, but internationally. Is this even worth it?" he asked.

Smyth's localized study states, "The lack of scientific references for fertilizer uses and emission reduction targets suggest that the targets are politically rooted, rather than empirically based."  

"The absence of empirical data to support emission reduction targets is concerning, as the lack of data and evidence, coupled with the absence of reliable and complete baseline data, establishes the conditions for unrealistic economic and environmental targets."

The Saskatchewan study includes baseline data by comparing information on fertilizer use from about 70 farmers across 1991/94 and 2016/19.

During those two periods, fertilizer use increased by 44% when farmers converted 7.2 million acres of summer fallow to crop production, with total crop production rising from 1.3 billion bushels to 2.1 billion bushels.

While farmers used more fertilizer, they applied it differently, using in-crop and with-seed applications at different rates.

They also sequestered carbon and reduced emissions by removing summer fallow.

"Farmers are already deeply incentivized to make our operations sustainable," said Jochum in a December statement. "We want to produce the most outputs, with the fewest inputs, and keep our operations going long enough to pass them to our children and grandchildren."

"That's the definition of sustainability."

According to the study, "Using an emissions-intensity approach that considers the increase in crop production, the data indicates that although crop farmers in Saskatchewan might not have reduced their potential N2O emission levels per bushel of grain, they have significantly raised yields to keep up with the growing global food and commodity demand."

"The 22% increase in Sask­atchewan cropland due to the removal of summer fallow is a large contributor to the increase in fertilizer use, making the simple comparison of absolute fertilizer use between the periods irrelevant, as the 7.2 million acres of additional cropland between 1991/94 and 2016/19 accounts for 44% of the total increase in fertilizer use in Saskatchewan."

However, Smyth said the crop yields bolstered the percentage of nitrogen by 29%, highlighting the challenge of meeting the ECCC target.

"Without government regulations, directives, mandates, targets, whatever you want to put in there, farmers have significantly increased their fertilizer efficiency," he added. 

"That's missing from the discussion [and] it's even missing in a lot of provincial capitals, [but] it's certainly missing in Ottawa bureaucracy," said Smyth. "Bureaucrats are not aware of what's changed at the farm level. We need to gather this data and tell these stories to better inform policymakers about what is happening."

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