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A field with a load of hay bales near Moose Creek, Ont., on Aug. 18.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau says Ottawa’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer will be voluntary and not a mandatory cut, despite claims from some farmers and conservative politicians running in leadership races at the federal level and in Alberta.

The federal government announced a target in December, 2020, to reduce fertilizer emissions by 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030. The plan, which includes incentives and research funding, received renewed scrutiny last month following an annual meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers of agriculture.

In the weeks since, the targets have become a flashpoint for critics of the government and voices within the agricultural sector claiming Ottawa intends to force farmers to cut down on fertilizer, which they warn would unfairly punish the sector and could hurt crop yields and global food security.

But Ms. Bibeau said an enforceable cap on fertilizer use has never been the plan.

“The target is to reduce the emissions caused by fertilizers. It’s not cutting fertilizer,” she said, adding most farmers are already focused on limiting the impacts of climate change but that this strategy will provide additional information and resources to further support climate action. Ms. Bibeau stressed that participation is voluntary and there are no plans to go the regulatory route.

Agriculture made up about 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions or 73 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, primarily from enteric fermentation, crop production and on-farm fuel use, according to Ottawa. Emissions from synthetic fertilizers accounted for about 13 megatonnes.

Ms. Bibeau said encouraging uptake of existing climate protection initiatives and utilizing new practices and technologies as they become available in the coming years will make it possible to reach the 30-per-cent emissions target by 2030.

“”While it’s obvious that we have to fight against climate change, farmers are the first ones to be impacted, and we’ve seen it more than ever last summer with droughts on one side and floods on the other one,” she said. “So it is important that we are really serious about reducing our emissions and fighting against climate change.”

United Conservative Party candidate Danielle Smith called the plan a “direct attack on Alberta farmers” and claimed it violated the Constitution. She has used the controversy to argue for her proposed Alberta sovereignty act, which is a proposed law that aims to give the province authority to refuse enforcement. The sovereignty act proposal is widely viewed as unconstitutional.

Premier Jason Kenney has also knocked the fertilizer target and pleaded with anyone who is concerned about high food prices to speak out against the plan, while other UCP leadership candidates have also criticized it.

Pierre Poilievre, considered the favourite to become leader of the federal Conservative Party next month, has also vowed to fight what he has characterized as a forced reduction that would put crops at risk.

Farmer and biologist Paul McLauchlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, said some farmers still doubt the goal is possible considering many in the agricultural sector are already committed to climate change initiatives. He said the federal government should be doing more to talk to farmers and industry groups to dispel concerns.

“This world is a little chaotic and rumours become truth,” said Mr. McLauchlin. “People are so volatile right now with this tire-kicking of concepts and ideas, we just have to be so cautious.”

Saskatchewan and Alberta have been among a group of vocal opponents to the fertilizer targets. Last month, in a joint press release, the Prairie provinces called the plan “short-sighted” and said reductions in fertilizer use would have a damning effect on the agricultural sector.

Brent Preston, a farmer in Creemore, Ont., and director of Farmers for Climate Solutions, said the most effective, and cost-friendly, way to reduce emissions is by cutting fertilizer use, but that it is possible to reach the 30-per-cent target by other means.

“It’s an ambitious target, but it is absolutely achievable. And it’s achievable in a way that protects yields,” said Mr. Preston. “The challenge is we can reduce emissions and continue to feed the world, we just have to be smart about the way we do it.”

Many farmers across the country have already adopted an approach called 4R Nutrient Stewardship, which is a framework to ensure fertilizer is from the right source, applied at the right rate, and used at the right time and in the right place. Some farmers also use no-till cropping systems which help store carbon in soils, an example being double cropping, where two crops are harvested on the same piece of land during a single year, such as soybeans after wheat.

Mr. Preston said Ottawa did a poor job of introducing the fertilizer emissions target late last year with limited details on how to achieve what seemed like an arbitrary goal at the time. Coupled with recent misinformation spread by critics of the plan, he said Ottawa has to engage directly with stakeholders to increase buy-in.

“It’s left this big void that’s been filled by people who are who are worried justifiably about what this is going to mean for their business and for their bottom line,” he said.

The federal government has pointed to more widespread uptake of the 4R approach as a pillar to achieving its emissions reduction target, in addition to replacing synthetic fertilizer with manures, compost or digestate and refining drainage and conservation tillage. Ms. Bibeau noted that only about 25 per cent of agricultural land is using the 4R approach.

Israel Dunmade, a professor of sustainable engineering at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said with government incentives and public education that includes on-site demonstrations of best practices, the fertilizer emissions target can be met and even exceeded.

Dr. Dunmade said Ottawa should focus strongly on crop rotation as its blueprint to success, which is the practice of growing different types of crops on the same land in recurrent succession to optimize soil health.

Mackenzie Blyth, press secretary to Alberta Agriculture Minister Nate Horner, said the minister was unavailable for an interview. In a statement, Mr. Horner said he is pleased Ottawa backed away from making the target a “regulatory burden” and “must ensure actions to achieve their target focus on improving nitrogen management and optimizing fertilizer use.”

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story provided emissions totals for the agriculture industry in tonnes instead of megatonnes. In fact, the agricultural sector accounted for 73 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019 and emissions from synthetic fertilizers accounted for about 13 megatonnes.