“No intention of going in a regulatory direction,” says Minister Bibeau, regarding fertilizer emissions target

Marie-Claude Bibeau

The details of how the Canadian government plans to reach its 30 per cent nitrogen fertilizer emission reduction target are still not clear, but the federal agriculture minister says the government has “no intention of going in a regulatory direction.”

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau also says farm practices that reduce emissions, but are not currently recognized in the government’s emissions estimates, will be integrated into the calculations as they are better understood.

There are widespread concerns that the plan to reduce emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 (compared with a 2020 baseline) would result in a reduction in fertilizer use, and a consequential drop in crop yields. That concern has been supported by the fact the government’s current method for estimating emissions accounts for the volume of fertilizer used, but doesn’t directly account for different practices and products used by farmers that reduce emissions.

“It’s not reducing fertilizer. It’s reducing the emissions caused by (fertilizer),” she says, pushing back against the description of the policy as a fertilizer reduction.

When it comes to recognizing existing farm practices that reduce emissions, such as those under the 4R nutrient stewardship framework, Bibeau says “the idea and the objective is to better recognize and integrate the results of these practices. As soon as we develop this better understanding and the science that goes with it, it will be possible to integrate it in the calculation.”

Given the level of attention this issue is receiving, and the potential impact depending on the direction the government chooses, we’re sharing the magazine-style transcript of the conversation with Minister Bibeau, as originally heard on RealAg Radio on August 9. Read/listen below:

Interview with Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau

Kelvin Heppner: I’m sure you’ve been following the discussion and the reaction to the federal target. It was announced back in 2020, but it’s been in the spotlight lately. Can you bring us up to speed on what the government’s plan is, at this point, when it comes to reducing emissions from nitrogen fertilizer, as there is plenty of concern that this will mean reduced fertilizer use?

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau: No, absolutely not. We are really talking about reducing our emissions generally. And we have identified that emissions caused by fertilizer are significant. So we have to pay special attention, and we have to invest with the industry to find ways to reduce the emissions. So once again, it’s not reducing fertilizer, it’s reducing the emissions caused by. This is why we are investing in different ways. The On-Farm Climate Action Program, for example, it’s a way to provide farmers with incentives to de-risk the adoption of good practices like the 4R example. We are investing in the Living Labs, adding our scientists in the field, all across the country, to be able to develop good practices that fit the reality of the different regions of our big country. So it’s really in this direction that we’re going. It’s a voluntary target. It’s an ambitious target, of course, because we have to move the needle. But really, our hope is to get as many farmers and the stakeholders of the industry that produce our fertilizer, moving in the right direction to reduce the emissions. And actually, we can see already that grain farmers and the dairy farmers, for example, having a net-zero emission objective by 2050. So we see the industry going in this direction already.

KH: One of the challenges or big hang-ups in this is the federal government’s method for calculating emissions in the National Inventory Report that gets published annually. That math currently doesn’t take into account 4R practices, or many of the practices that farmers already do, the products they use, that we know reduce emissions. So will there be changes to this methodology in terms of of recognizing these practices and products that are proven to reduce nitrous oxide emissions?

Bibeau: We already take into consideration some tillage practices, for example. And as you know, through these different projects that I talked about, we are developing better practices and a better understanding and the science comes with it. The idea and the objective is to better recognize and integrate the results of these practices. As soon as we develop this better understanding and the science that goes with it, it will be possible to integrate it in the calculation.

KH: What’s the timeline for that? Is there pressure to to get that accounted for in the calculations as 2030 is only a few more growing seasons away?

Bibeau: Well, we’re investing significantly in research and innovation. So it will go as fast as the science can go. I would say this is the idea.

KH: Another issue here is the 30 per cent by 2030 target is seen as an absolute target. It doesn’t take into account if yields or production would increase over this 10 year period, which of course is likely, and that means a 30 per cent reduction in emissions on a per bushel or per tonne basis would not hit the target. It would need to be greater than 30 per cent. Will it remain an absolute 30 per cent overall target or could it be changed to a 30 per cent target relative to the size of the crop that Canadian farmers grow?

Bibeau: We are looking at a net target because overall if we want to reduce our emissions and fight against climate change, we really have to look at the net target. But once again, it’s a voluntary target which is ambitious and this is why we are putting different programming in place. We have recently announced $1.5 billion in agri-environmental measures so, this is why we are putting our money where our mouth is, I would say, to support the industry toward this transition.

KH: So for farmers listening to (or reading) this minister, what should they be expecting down the down the road? Should they expect restrictions or banning of certain practices or fertilizer timing or products? Will they have to use enhanced efficiency fertilizer products and put them in the field in a certain way? What does it look like at the farm level come 2030?

Bibeau: I would say stay tuned on the best practices, and the better inputs. We have no intention of going in a regulatory direction. This is once again a voluntary target but we need the everyone to join forces. We want to make sure that our soil will stay healthy, that our agriculture will be sustainable, environmentally, of course, but also financially. And I would also say, in the human perspective, it’s important that we support our farmers as well. So it’s really stay tuned, stay connected with with your association, with the industry. Just get this information on what the best practices are, and move forward in this direction to contribute to the transition toward a low emission agriculture.

KH: Do you think increased adoption of 4R practices, and then of course, also the accounting of 4R practices in the emissions math that the government does, do you think that’s enough to get us to the 30 per cent target?

Bibeau: It would be significant if everybody were to adopt 4R, definitely. I believe that we don’t already know everything that we need to get there. I’m pretty sure that we will learn about new organic fertilizer maybe or new practices or new techniques to capture carbon or reduce emission through fertilizers. But I believe that we will get to know and understand these new practices and technologies through the years. And with this research, we will get there.

KH: How closely are you working with Minister Guilbeault and Environment and Climate Change Canada on this? Ultimately Canada’s emissions commitments on the global stage, which this is part of, would fall under their jurisdiction. Does Environment Canada understand the discussion and the complexity around 4Rs and reducing intensity of emissions and the discussions that we’re having in agriculture?

Bibeau: I can assure you that we’re working closely together and my team is making sure that his team has a good understanding of our reality. So of course, Minister Guilbeaut is in charge of reducing the emissions of the whole country. And then when it comes to, to the agriculture, it’s really my team and I. We are with the industry, with the academics, and everyone we are trying to find where we can reduce emissions in the more significant way. And we have identified that fertilizer is one source that could make a difference. So this is an example of why we’re looking at this and another example for is the new resilient agricultural landscape program that we have agreed on at the last federal-provincial-territorial meeting. This will be an investment of $250 million across the country, and we will let the provinces manage the program in the way that suits or fits the reality of their region, because we know agriculture is very different in the Prairies if you compare to British Columbia or Quebec or the Atlantic. So it was important to give flexibility to the provinces so they can put in place such a program. And because we know that protecting some type of land would help us sequester more carbon and this will make a difference. So this is why we’re putting money where we think a new practice would make a difference.

KH: So the On-Farm Climate Action Fund has some nitrogen management funding for farmers, some incentives there. You also mentioned the landscape program. How important is that government funding and programming in getting to this 30 per cent goal? Do you see government funding being the main driver of reducing emissions by this extent?

Bibeau: These are all significant efforts, from our part, to get the industry at every level to participate to join and, and to find these new practices and make sure that as many people as possible as many farmers as possible, do, join and contribute to emissions reduction.

KH: Maybe a more personal question for you, Minister Bibeau — how much have you had to learn about fertilizer emissions in the past few months?

Bibeau: Quite a bit, I must say, I’m not a scientist. I’m definitely a manager, but I like to be a field person. And I would say that it’s when I am in the field with farmers that I get to understand more, and I was traveling as you know, in the Prairies recently, and I will be meeting farmers across the country in the 10 provinces during the summer.

KH: Finally, consultations are currently open on the discussion papers that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada published earlier this year around this policy. Those consultations close at the end of August. What happens after that? What are the next steps between now and this 2030 deadline or target that the government has set?

Bibeau: I think we have demonstrated that all the consultation we do are reflected in the following program that we put in place. This is very important for us at Agriculture (and Agri-Food Canada) but also for our colleagues at Environment Canada as well, to understand the reality, to take into consideration all the the proposal and recommendations that will come through the consultation.It will inform us in the best ways to to move forward and to be there to support farmers in this transition.

KH: All right. There are certainly lots of details that farmers are waiting to hear when it comes to what this will look like, but we thank you minister for taking your time to to share your perspective on it.

Bibeau: Always a pleasure. Take care.

Related: Trying to wrap our heads around the federal fertilizer emissions plan — a timeline of how we got to this point