By Gary G. Mar
Published in the Calgary Herald

August 17, 2022

Federal Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau has taken to the road to counter what she has described as “misinformation” – that the 30 per cent target to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer is a mandatory cap on fertilizer use. She has clarified that it is a voluntary, albeit ambitious, target to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer use between 2020-2030. Introduced in the Healthy Environment Healthy Economy plan in December 2020, it is now in its second round of consultations.

Minsters of agriculture and premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as many farmers and farm organizations are opposed to the target, despite their broad support and actions to reduce emissions reduction and use nitrogen fertilizer ever more efficiently.

Why then all the hullabaloo?

First and foremost, there is concern that in practice this target on emissions will become a mandatory cap on fertilizer use. Another is that farmers feel insulted the federal government does not trust them to know how to feed the world sustainably. And there are other concerns and questions about the target itself – some of which the federal government acknowledged in August’s discussion document on fertilizer emissions reduction.

The provincial ministers of agriculture were pleased that the minister agreed to add fertilizer emissions to the agenda of the recent federal-provincial meeting. But despite agreement on how to reduce emissions and support farmers to make improvements, the provinces were disappointed the target itself was not up for debate.

The target has become something of a target. There are concerns whether it’s possible to meet given that 2030 is seven growing seasons away or, alternatively, whether it’s necessary given the cost of fertilizer which doubled this year. And the 2020 baseline does not recognize the progress from large investments in soil health and fertilizer efficiency while increasing crop production on the prairies by 70% since 2006.

But the biggest concern, the one the minister is trying address, is the fear that the voluntary target will become a mandatory cap.

Minister Bibeau is reaping what has been sown by her cabinet colleagues – and particularly the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change (ECCC). Lack of trust based on experience in other sectors has carried over into agriculture. Western farmers are well aware of the impacts of shifting ECCC policies on the energy sector including moving targets; emission targets that have become proposed mandatory caps for the oilsands that become defacto production caps; and cap creep as targets in other sectors become caps.

It should be no surprise to the minister that her assurances the federal government has “no intention to make the target mandatory” are being taken with a grain of salt. “No intention” is not the same as “will not.” Uncertainty remains. This is the reason that the “contract for differences” idea has been proposed to create certainty around the future carbon price. Perhaps the federal government or even provinces might consider providing assurance through a guarantee to rebate any penalties for nitrogen fertilizer use if the target becomes a mandatory cap. This would create the certainty needed to stimulate investment by farmers, the sector and our international customers.

What we have here is not only a failure to communicate, but also a failure to truly listen and to collaborate.

July’s good work by federal and provincial ministers to sign the Sustainable Canadian Agriculture Partnership agreement to fund emissions reduction activities has been lost in the kerfuffle over the federal commitment to a controversial target. The ministers and ministries of agriculture have a good track record of collaboration – until now. Where that track record fails is collaboration on emissions reduction targets despite shared jurisdiction.

It should be no surprise that the minister of agriculture is reaping mistrust over the target that that has sown by her government on the environment file.

Gary Mar is President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation