Soil testing may help farmers more than piling on fertilizer

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It’s become apparent in agricultural industry circles this year that there are three types of fertilizer.

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Opinion

It’s become apparent in agricultural industry circles this year that there are three types of fertilizer.

There’s the commercial nutrients that most farmers use to feed their crops. There are natural forms such as livestock manure, compost, seaweed and worm castings.

And then there is the B.S. variety — a lot of which has been flying about lately as critics of the federal Liberals try to discredit efforts to reduce emissions from fertilizer use by 30 per cent by 2030.

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau

Note that there is a difference between reducing emissions from fertilizer use and reducing fertilizer use. As well, reducing fertilizer use doesn’t automatically correlate with lower yields. Yet many of the harshest critics of the plan conveniently fail to make those distinctions. Rather, they’ve manufactured a classic “straw man” argument based on the fallacy that the heavy hand of government will force farmers to cut how much fertilizer they apply and that farmers’ yields will drop.

It started when Fertilizer Canada, which represents the companies that make and sell fertilizer, commissioned a report by Meyers Norris Penny that concluded forcing farmers to reduce fertilizer use would cost the sector $48 billion over eight years due to yield losses.

Social media commentators have kept the narrative going. “It’s official. Trudeau’s meeting with provincial agriculture ministers wrapped up yesterday. He is moving forward with a 30 per cent fertilizer reduction. Farms will fail, land will he purchased by billionaires/the government, and people will starve…” raged a tweet earlier this month.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business put out a press release in early August acknowledging that the federal proposal is voluntary but then citing survey results that found “72 per cent of farmers said the yield of their crops and overall food production will be reduced if the federal government required them to reduce their use of nitrogen fertilizer.”

The government has proposed nothing of the sort. But facts don’t matter in the age of disinformation.

Critics, including provincial ministers, continue to say, “but if they did…” or “they might,” before launching into why that’s such a bad idea.

The objectives of the federal policy are clearly articulated in a discussion paper released in the spring inviting industry comment until the end of August. It says: “The Government of Canada has been clear that the objective of the national target for fertilizers is to reduce emissions, and that the primary method to achieve this is not to establish a mandatory reduction in fertilizer use that isn’t linked to improved efficiency and maintaining or improving yields. Rather, the goal is to maximize efficiency, optimize fertilizer use, encourage innovation, and to work collaboratively with the agriculture sector, partners and stakeholders in identifying opportunities that will allow us to successfully reach this target.”

Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie Claude Bibeau reiterated the government’s intent in a recent interview with The Western Producer.

“We’re not talking about having any intention of limiting the use of fertilizer itself. The idea is to use them in the most sustainable way possible.”

The strategies proposed for meeting those emissions targets are entirely consistent with the industry’s own 4R nutrient strategy, which calls for using the right source, at the right rate, in the right place at the right time.

Plus, taxpayers’ dollars are on the table to help farmers get there.

The Canola Council of Canada announced this week it is among 12 organizations receiving government funds to support adoption of better fertilizer management practices. Growers can receive up to $12,000 per farm annually to help them do soil testing, field zone mapping, incorporate more efficient application methods and use enhanced-efficiency fertilizers.

These are all measures that can boost farmers’ yields and profitability — not reduce them.

Farmers have for decades been advised to soil test before buying fertilizer, and a 2019 Fertilizer Canada report found that farmers who soil test have higher yields. But surveys show only one-third do it regularly.

In other words, governments are offering to pay farmers to incorporate practices that they should already be using and which could make them more money. It might also mean they need less fertilizer.

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at lrance@farmmedia.com

Laura Rance

Laura Rance
Columnist

Laura Rance is editorial director at Farm Business Communications.

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