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In late 2020, as part of its plan to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, the Trudeau government floated a target for the agriculture sector: cut emissions from fertilizers by 30 per cent. Some farmers feared it would mean that they’d be forced to use 30 per cent less fertilizer – which could mean farming 30 per cent less, and growing 30 per cent less food.

Last month, Ottawa stressed that the focus of its evolving plan is fertilizer emissions, not the amount of fertilizer used. It said consultations with farmers on how to reach the target were ongoing; it also said it would not take steps to impede domestic or global food security.

The plan remains vague and a lot of farmers are still worried. Canada must have ambitious GHG reduction targets, but it’s always been understood that lowering emissions is going to be easier in some areas than others. It has to be done in ways that don’t harm the economy, and we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot by pushing emissions-intensive industries – such as steelmaking or some types of farming – to close up shop in Canada and move overseas.

Ottawa’s Emissions Reduction Plan, from March, details changes across various sectors of the economy. Among the ambitious goals are cuts to oil and gas emissions of more than 40 per cent by 2030, and slashing emissions from electricity generation by almost 80 per cent.

One sector that isn’t being asked for much is agriculture. It accounts for about 10 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gases but Ottawa is calling for only a 3-per-cent cut in agriculture emissions. (Agriculture is also forecast to get credit for better land use.)

Is that unfair? It would be more accurate to describe it as economically and politically prudent. Growing food is, well, kind of central to the food chain. And when food production falls, it drives inflation.

There are 190,000 farms in Canada, and exports of agriculture and agri-food products reached $82-billion last year, a figure that rivals oil exports.

At the same time, farmers are among those most exposed to global warming. Amid the heat of last summer and drought on the Prairies, Canadian wheat production fell close to 40 per cent.

In 2020, Canadian agriculture’s emissions were 69 megatonnes – about the same as heavy industry, which includes mining, steel and cement. Half of agriculture’s total comes from animals – mostly the methane emitted by food digestion in cattle. At 28 MT of carbon dioxide equivalent, agricultural methane emissions are nearly equal to fugitive methane released by Canada’s oil and gas sector.

The remainder of farming’s emissions come from fuel to power farm work, and fertilizer to grow crops. Fertilizer is essential to grow food and get high yields; it’s also a major source of nitrous oxide, a potent GHG.

Ottawa wants an emissions cut of about 4 MT from fertilizer. Some farm groups say that’s going to be difficult, or impossible.

Farmers are right that any emission plan that undermines Canada’s food production would be a bad plan. But technology is rapidly improving and farm groups such as Farmers for Climate Solutions believe more can be done. Over the past two decades, there have been major improvements; Canadian agriculture emitted half as many GHGs for each dollar of GDP in 2018, compared with 1997.

Still, emissions from cereal crop production, dependent on fertilizer, remain high in Canada compared with Europe, Australia or the United States. There are big opportunities in what’s known as precision agriculture. An example is the “4Rs” – which includes factors such as the type of fertilizer deployed, how much is used, and when. Fewer than one in 10 Canadian farmers in 2019 had a formal 4R plan. Ottawa believes widespread use of 4R on the Prairies could achieve most of the fertilizer emissions goal, without affecting crop yields.

This sort of ag science is key, and Canada could be doing more. The head of the University of Guelph’s food institute recently said the farmer of the future is as “likely to wear a lab coat as they are to drive a tractor.” There is innovation across the sector, including promising advances in cattle feed, which could help corral methane emissions.

Canada has to strike a balance. Avoid steps that will lower food production, or raise food prices. Aim for emissions reductions – but only in the most efficient way possible.

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