July 12, 2023

Federal government’s fertilizer-based emission reduction target has direct impact on Canadian producers: Simpson Centre report

International standards would make food-producing practices more equitable
Guillaume Lhermie
Guillaume Lhermie speaks at the Carbon in Agriculture Roundtable in February in Edmonton. Simpson Centre

A new research report from the Simpson Centre, located at the School of Public Policy, suggests the federal government’s fertilizer-based emission reduction target has a direct impact on Canadian producers.

In accord with the Paris Agreement, Canada is among the countries required to submit its nationally determined contribution that sets out a plan highlighting climate actions, including climate-related targets, policies and measures to reduce national emissions. Among the targets is the reduction of emissions from fertilizers to 30 per cent below the 2020 levels.

“It is putting a lot of pressure on producers to decrease their emissions and their fertilizer use,” explains Dr. Guillaume Lhermie, DVM, the director of the Simpson Centre and co-author of the report on Canada’s fertilizer-based emission reduction target.

“But there is a direct connection between decreasing fertilizer use and decreasing the yield produced, meaning you directly affect the profits of the farmers.”

Farming is already an industry with tight margins, due to high production costs and low sales prices. Those margins become even tighter for farmers when they can’t produce a full yield because they can’t use as much fertilizer.

Lhermie says while the target may help Canada reach its greenhouse gas emissions targets, it will also cause the country to lose competitiveness in the international trade market. Canada is primarily an export nation, exporting between 60 to 80 per cent of its produced beef, canola, and wheat.

Canada has never been so efficient in producing food, meaning it produces more with less inputs of water, land, fertilizer, and pesticides. However, the Canadian fertilizer emissions target was introduced arbitrarily, with producers not being consulted on how it would affect them.

“Canada could be able to justify that they were able to reduce their emissions. However, that doesn’t mean other countries will do the same,” says Lhermie. “This could open the door to less sustainable practices in other countries, because we still need to feed people.”

While other countries who have signed the Paris Agreement are also required to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, it is up to each individual country to determine how to achieve those targets.

In turn, this could lead countries looking to purchase food to buy from places other than Canada.

“Right now, the market does not reward high environmental quality,” says Lhermie.

According to Lhermie, the solution should be a market mechanism which rewards producers for producing more sustainably with a lesser environmental impact.

To do this, Lhermie says international standards should be put in place to make food-producing practices more homogenous.

“The key notion is trade-offs and societal choices when it comes to food,” says Lhermie. “As individuals, we have the potential to nudge any kind of food system.”

Guillaume Lhermie is director of the Simpson Centre and associate professor of animal health at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

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