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opinion

Tyler McCann is managing director of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

In an increasingly volatile world, with the frequency of extreme weather events, input costs and commodity prices all rising unpredictably, Canadian farmers are being called on to produce more food – and with a smaller environmental footprint. They are making significant progress in achieving this goal, but are also increasingly worried that federal government policies will make their jobs more difficult.

Given the obstacles facing global food security, Ottawa and Canadian farmers need to be on the same page about how the latter can simultaneously meet environmental, economic and food-security needs – and how they are being asked, or told, to do so.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recently said that in order for agriculture to meet the world’s environmental and food security needs by 2030, the global rate of agricultural productivity needs to grow by 28 per cent over the next decade. This is three times greater than that of the last decade, and is therefore a huge challenge.

Agriculture inputs, including fertilizer and pesticides, are essential to that growth. That is one reason why many Canadian farmers are concerned about the potential impact of the federal government’s 30-per-cent reduction target for fertilizer emissions.

This reduction is usually in a farmer’s interest. Fertilizer emissions consist of nitrogen that farmers have already paid for, which evaporate instead of doing what they are bought for – boost crop yields. Making fertilizer more efficient and ensuring it is not released as a greenhouse gas can be good for a farmer’s bottom line. The emissions reductions may be a significant secondary benefit.

That’s why most farmers are already making improvements to how they use fertilizer. This includes adopting practices such as “4R” nutrient stewardship: ensuring fertilizer is from the right source, applied at the right rate, and used at the right time and in the right place.

Farmers have already been adopting these practices independently. It was the same with the adoption of no-till cropping systems, which have helped store carbon in soils across Canada. No-till made good financial and agronomic sense: significant improvements in soil health and boosting carbon sequestration were added benefits.

Still, there has been a growing discord in recent weeks between farmers and the federal government. Improving food security, environmental protection, and economic outcomes all at the same time is already difficult in and of itself. Delivering sustainable productivity growth that can achieve all three results will require farmers, governments and other partners to all work together.

There was an unfortunate lack of clarity when the fertilizer-emissions reduction target was announced almost two years ago, with the absence of important details, such as how the target was arrived at and what will count toward it. This led to a sense of frustration within the farming community that is still prevalent today.

Many perceived potential limits on the use of fertilizer as an outright ban, and it was unclear how farmers could continue feeding the world with these new restrictions in place.

However, the federal government has since tried to clarify its intent. In a discussion paper published in March, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada acknowledged the difficulty facing farmers, stating: “The defining challenge for Canadian agriculture in the 21st century will be to reduce absolute GHG emissions and ultimately reach net-zero emissions by 2050 while finding ways to increase yields and economic growth.”

Ottawa went further on July 22, noting in a federal, provincial and territorial agriculture-ministers communiqué that they had “discussed the importance of ensuring that efforts to reduce emissions from fertilizer or other agricultural sources do not impede Canada’s ability to contribute to domestic and global food security, now or into the future.”

The federal government has tried to clarify its position: It is not anti-fertilizer, but pro-sustainable productivity growth. It must now go further to consult more meaningfully with farmers on how to implement its vision for the future. It must also continue to be held accountable for its commitment to not compromise food security at home and abroad.

A continuing fight over a perceived fertilizer ban that Ottawa has said it does not intend to implement makes collaborating harder. It also takes attention away from more important issues, such as the tariffs placed on fertilizer imports that are restricting access to these critical inputs.

Canada should be a global leader in using agriculture and food to meet critical environmental, food-security and economic-development goals. But we can only do so if we agree to all work together.

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