Fertilizer use drives emissions in agriculture: report


“In the western provinces, we have seen a tripling or quadrupling of fertilizer tonnage over the last 30 years,” said Darrin Qualman, director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Union of Workers. farmers.

Emissions in agriculture have increased by two-thirds over the past 30 years, mainly due to an increase in the production and use of nitrogen fertilizers, according to a new report.

Most other program categories in the industry remain flat, said Darrin Qualman, director of climate crisis policy and action at the National Farmers Union and author of Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Canada: A Comprehensive New Assessmenta report published this month.

“When [we] look at the data, what drives the overall total up is a fairly rapid increase in emissions from fertilizer production and use,” Qualman said.

“And it’s not surprising. In the western provinces, we have seen the tonnage of fertilizer triple or quadruple over the past 30 years.

Fertilizer rates per hectare are increasing, Qualman said, and there is also more cropland overall. Thirty years ago, summerfallow was practiced, where no crops were grown and all plant growth was culturally or chemically controlled during a season when a crop could normally be grown, but Qualman said that now every acre, more or less, is cultivated every year. .

“But also, only the rates of fertilizer that farmers put on an acre of canola or wheat have gone up, so the overall tonnage has gone up,” Qualman said.

Farmers are using more fertilizer because the main goal of farming is to maximize yields, Qualman said, adding that federal policy pays close attention to export volumes, and each year is expected to export more than the previous year. This focus on maximizing yields and results results in increased inputs, such as fertilizers, which leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

To help reduce emissions, the agriculture sector must find a way to optimize fertilizer use rather than maximizing it, Qualman said.

“We need to find ways to use this valuable nitrogen fertilizer as efficiently as possible,” Qualman said.

“We took nitrogen fertilizers for granted for a long time and added a bit more in the hope of getting a bit more yield. We need to find ways to use [fertlizer] more efficiently and more cautiously.

Qualman said the industry is already focused on using fertilizers more efficiently, particularly because reducing input costs, such as fertilizer, can help maximize profit margins. If you don’t use fertilizer on a crop and it still produces a big yield, you’ve saved money on input costs and increased net income.

Overall, fertilizer emissions account for about 30% of the greenhouse gases produced in agriculture.

Livestock emissions, which increased from 1990 to 2005, but have since declined, Qualman said.

Some of the reasons the heads grew larger were the BSE crisis and market problems with cattle, which caused herd sizes to peak in 2005, but since that peak herd sizes have been declining.

As herd sizes decrease, emissions also decrease, Qualman said.

“There have been efficiencies in beef production, but a lot of it is a function of [the fact that] the number of cattle there has gone down,” Qualman said.

While there are opportunities for farms to become more efficient in some areas, Qualman said the industry needs to be careful not to keep telling them to just find efficiencies.

“There is a small caveat, however, because we don’t just want to tell farmers to just be more efficient. Unfortunately, farmers … especially cattle ranchers, have heard this message over and over again, every time prices have gone down, and it has become harder to make a living as a cattle rancher,” Qualman said.

Instead, the report seeks to tell government and farmers to work together to find win-win solutions where emissions can go down and incomes can go up, Qualman said.

Emissions from agriculture represent approximately 10% of total emissions in Canada.

To bring that number down, Qualman said nitrogen fertilizer use needs to drop.

In the 2021 budget, some $200 million was earmarked over three years to help support three programs aimed at reducing emissions, Qualam said.

One initiative is to support better nitrogen management. Another program supports rotational crop grazing, which helps livestock producers install water, supplies and fencing to manage herds as efficiently as possible and maximize grass productivity and capture more carbon. in the ground.

The final program is the support of a cover crop program, which installs a crop in the field when there is no cash crop. This helps maximize soil carbon gains and captures some of the nitrous oxide emissions that could be lost to the atmosphere as greenhouse gases.


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