Discussion needed on cuts to fertilizer use

Fertilizer Canada, which represents companies producing and selling fertilizer products, certainly got people’s attention late last month when it said proposed cuts to fertilizer use could cost Canadian farmers $48 billion.

That’s a big number, albeit an estimate spread over the next decade or so. It’s based on tallying up the cost of lower yields if farmers are forced to reduce their nitrogen fertilizer use by 20 per cent to achieve the 30 per cent total emissions reductions proposed under the federal government’s climate plan.

Fertilizer Canada takes issue with how those targets might be applied. Rather than focusing on total emissions reductions, which it says will put a cap on use and yields, it wants the focus to shift to reducing the emissions from producing a bushel of crop, which allows yields to continue growing.

So Fertilizer Canada hired Meyers Norris Penny (MNP) to do an economic evaluation that might goad the federal bureaucracy into taking a different tact.

That study came up with some graphic, and some would argue questionable, numbers to back the assertion that a 20 per cent across-the-board reduction in fertilizer use would create yield gaps amounting to 23.6 bushels per acre per year for canola, 67.9 bushels per acre for corn, and 36.1 bushels per acre for spring wheat. Essentially, they are saying the yields for canola and wheat could be reduced by up to half.

That would reduce the amounts of commodities available for domestic processing and cut exports by as much as 14 million tonnes by 2030. So in a nutshell, meeting the federal targets would impoverish farmers, cripple Canada’s exports and increase the risk of global starvation.

However, there is a qualifying statement in that report, and it’s a significant one.

“This report is, however, based on the assumptions of continued farming practices (including crop rotation) as they are today to reflect the possibility of farmers accepting the lower production that lost nutrients would have on the production levels of their crops. The assumptions of this report summarize that effect by simply reducing the crop output and thereby presuming there is a direct correlation between available nutrients and loss in fertilizer use and impact on crop production.”

If you were told you needed to reduce your home’s energy consumption by 20 per cent, would you just accept that you were going to be 20 per cent colder in every room of your home?

Not likely. The first thing you’d do is grumble, which is what is happening right now in farm country.

Then you’d likely look at some low-cost, easily implemented adjustments, such as making sure your home was sealed from drafts. You’d close doors and turn the heat down in the rooms you rarely use.

Or perhaps you would put on a sweater to reduce your body’s loss of heat. Eventually, you’d look at investing in energy-efficient technology such as better insulation, windows or solar panels.

So it goes in farming. Researchers now know there are zones in every field where fertilizer uptake by the crops will be higher or lower depending on soil and moisture conditions. Increasingly, farmers are moving away from applying the same rate across their fields and learning how to apply more fertilizer where it’s needed and less where uptake potential is limited.

Farmers now have access to coated fertilizer — the sweater analogy — that protects and delays the release of nutrients and reduces the risk of loss.

Besides all that, our understanding of the interplay between different soils, applied nutrients and fertility is becoming more nuanced by the day. Assuming direct correlations between a reduction in product applications and yield and then analyzing the economic impacts is overly simplistic.

There is undoubtedly room for more discussion and consideration of the 4R Nutrient Strategy championed by Fertilizer Canada. It focuses on helping farmers achieve better efficiency by applying nutrients at the right time, the right place, using the right product, and the right method.

However, setting a more realistic framework for that discussion would be a good place to start.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

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