Prairie Post (West Edition)
Fertilizer emissions, food insecurity and federal targets
As the outdoor growing season wraps up in Alberta, the federal government is moving forward with a plan to cut nitrogen (N) emissions 30 per cent by 2030. Over the summer, Agriculture Canada invited farmers and stakeholders to complete an online survey on a goal that looks different depending in the angle it’s viewed from.
The agency reported 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from crop and livestock production. Unsurprisingly, the business and economic perspectives on the issue are dramatically different than the biological and environmental concerns. It’s a trigger for conflicting values and will undoubtedly generate debate. Both sides of the equation have strong arguments for either the addition or subtraction of nitrogen fertilizer.
The online survey, which closed Aug. 31, asked respondents questions pertaining to the use, reduction, and impact of fertilizer products on how to incorporate and promote new solutions to address climate goals. It also sought feedback and what role governments, industry, and stakeholders have in data collection and strategy implementation.
Media sources Inside Climate News and the BBC quote studies that suggest N2O is about 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide at heating the atmosphere. Along with CO2, it is long-lived, “spending an average of 114 years in the sky before disintegrating,” according to the BBC article.
Agriculture Canada lists carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide as the predominant gases produced by agriculture. Other greenhouse gases include Industrial gases, water vapour, and ozone. The agency says that N2O accounts for about half the warming effect of agricultural emissions.
“This gas, familiar to us as laughing gas, is produced in nature by microbes as they process nitrogen in soils,” the website states. “All soils emit some nitrous oxide, but farm soils often emit more than others because of the nitrogen that is added to soil in the form of fertilizers, manures, and other inputs.”
Agriculture Canada recognizes that without nitrogen inputs, crop yields could diminish and many farmers stand by the same claim.
“As the amounts of added nitrogen increase, so do potential losses into the environment, including losses of nitrogen to the air as N2O,” Agriculture Canada says. “Typically, scientists assume that about one per cent of the nitrogen added to farm fields is emitted as N2O, though this can vary widely with soil water content which is influenced by the hilliness of the land and soil clay content.”
The consensus is that N fertilizer is a contributing factor, and if the BBC statement is correct, it has a potent and long-lasting potential for heat retention.
Will a new emissions target, if enforced, limit crop yields and driveup food prices? On the flip side, will a reduction in nitrogen fertilizer really contribute to an environmental cooling effect?
Other questions arise: What are the measurements of N2O currently? Are those measurements evenly or unevenly distributed across arable lands in the country? If the government was to supply N2O monitors to every crop farmer, where would the farmer measure the N2O levels? At ground level, presumably. What about 50 feet or 500 feet up in the atmosphere? How does N2O disperse vertically and horizontally across regions?
The federal government allows for this: “Efforts to achieve emissions reductions will focus on improving nitrogen management and optimizing fertilizer use – not a mandatory reduction in the use of fertilizers. For example, practices such as the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, minimizing fall application or broadcasting of fertilizers, increased use of pulses in crop rotations, and annual soil testing can improve nitrogen use efficiency and reduce emissions.”
The Government of Canada said they are, “working collaboratively with the agriculture sector, partners, and stakeholders in identifying opportunities that will allow us to successfully reach this target.”