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.”

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