Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has published a discussion paper on its plan to reduce N2O emissions from nitrogen fertilizer use at the farm level by 30 per cent.
The paper, posted on AAFC’s website late Friday afternoon, reaffirms that the target, which was announced in December 2020, remains a priority for the federal government, while also outlining possible approaches to achieving the target.
“The fertilizer emission target is ambitious, but achievable. It is intended to build upon the sector’s work to date, and increase adoption of region- and farm-specific approaches that will reverse the trend of rising emissions arising from fertilizer use while maintaining the sector’s competitiveness and Canada’s reputation as a top producer and exporter of quality crops,” says the discussion paper.
“To a large extent, the required technologies and practices already exist,” it continues. “It is now a question of how to increase their use, identify and address any challenges or shortcomings, and ensure that farmers have the knowledge and support required to do so.”
The discussion paper includes a whole section on 4R nutrient stewardship practices (right source, right rate, right time, right place). Practices such as soil testing, split N applications, and use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers would fit under the 4R banner.
The paper also refers to enhanced conservation practices, including improved drainage design and conservation tillage, and replacing synthetic fertilizer with manures, compost or digestate. Other suggestions that are mentioned include introducing a maximum guarantee for nitrogen content, and consideration of sales quotas for enhanced efficiency fertilizer.
One of the main issues with the government’s proposed target centres on the measurement of emissions from fertilizer: will stewardship practices that reduce the emissions intensity of each unit of fertilizer a farmer uses be recognized in measuring emissions from fertilizer? The government’s current method for estimating the amount of N2O emitted from nitrogen fertilizer would not account for farmers increasing their use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, deploying variable rate technology, and implementing other practices in line with the well-known 4R nutrient stewardship program.
“Improvements are regularly made to Canada’s official GHG accounting methodology, reflecting ongoing improvement of scientific understanding and data sources. Updated methodology for cropland emissions has been peer-reviewed and will be formally applied in Canada’s next NIR (National Inventory Report), due for release in April 2022,” says the discussion paper.
Given the uncertainty about the government’s emissions math not accounting for more efficient fertilizer application practices, there have been major concerns expressed by farm groups and farmers that the target could result in policies that restrict fertilizer use based on volume. The discussion paper says the government does not see this as the primary method for reaching the target.
“The Government of Canada has been clear that the objective of the national target for fertilizers is to reduce emissions, and that the primary method to achieve this is not to establish a mandatory reduction in fertilizer use that isn’t linked to improved efficiency and maintaining or improving yields,” the paper says. “Rather, the goal is to maximize efficiency, optimize fertilizer use, encourage innovation, and to work collaboratively with the agriculture sector, partners and stakeholders in identifying opportunities that will allow us to successfully reach this target.”
The report also acknowledges the need to gather more farm-level data on emissions reductions. “A number of the BMPs (beneficial management practices) mentioned in this report are not currently captured in the National Inventory Report methods due to lack of farm activity data. Effort is needed to gather this data to capture the extent to which practices have changed from 2005 to present and to incorporate these practices into the inventory methodology,” the authors acknowledge.
AAFC is inviting public comments on the discussion paper until June 3 (you can submit comments here). Industry stakeholders have also been informed a town hall-style meeting is being planned for early April.