Do more with less? That seldom works

Do more with less? That seldom works

Use 30 percent less fertilizer and put 30 percent more food into the global system.

That is, at first blush, what the federal government has suggested Canadian farmers should be doing over the next nine years. The ag industry isn’t impressed.

Farmers in Western Canada are outraged that their operations are so misunderstood by the federal government. Most longer-term and commercially viable grain operations have survived through a mix of luck, an ability to live on small margins and careful attention to use of inputs.

Over-applying or using the wrong products at the wrong time are not part of a successful farming operation for prairie producers. More often, it’s the opposite issue — not having enough money to apply all that could be needed to maximize yields and take full advantage of genetics and available moisture.

The fertilizer industry hired accountant firm Meyers Norris Penny to calculate what would happen if Canadian farmers pulled back on application rates. The accountants said annual farm income reductions from $1.8 billion to $10 billion would occur if the greenhouse gas-saving plan was implemented between 2023 and 2030.

In late 2020, the Liberal government first mentioned its aspirational goal of a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. It has since inflated that trial balloon but has failed to suggest how it will be achieved.

It begs the question of who came up with this and why’ Sure, Canada needs to reduce its emissions, like every other place on the planet. And ag emissions are significant. It is the downside of humans who need to eat.

The government plan is a response to commitments associated with the Paris agreement on climate change and global carbon emissions. But those were made with the proviso that carbon reduction efforts would not impair food production — and Canada has also committed to United Nations goals to increase food production.

Grains and oilseeds don’t grow as if by magic. Agronomic rules still apply, even when there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plants need nutrients and growing more requires more.

There are few food production strategies that will produce more with less. They involve more pulse crops in farmers’ rotations. You can find several stories in this week’s edition related to the short supply of these.

Such a strategy might also involve more exacting use of nutrients, mainly nitrogen, in specific locations, but most variable-rate strategies don’t cut the total amount of fertilizer used. They just put more in the right places and less in the wrong ones. Or they cut production in field areas subject to regular crop loss. The theory there is to improve farmer margins, not necessarily produce the bigger yields that the world is counting on.

Perhaps the author of the federal government’s 30 percent less fertilizer plan isn’t familiar with western Canadian agriculture, in which most commercial fertilizer is taken up by crops, not released into the general environment.

Yes, site-specific agriculture will help. Genetic improvements to crops will help. Improved seeding and planting tools will help. New fertilizer stability tools will help. Risk management programs from the federal and provincial governments that encourage investment and risk-taking will help.

But all of these don’t add up to a 30 percent increase in production and a 30 percent cut in emissions.

The biggest help of all would be a government that makes aspirational statements about growing more and leaves the efficiency parts to those who know it best: farmers.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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