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Federal climate policies frustrate Alberta farmers

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Photo by Holly Nicoll

Alberta farmers and agriculture stakeholders are burdened and anxious over federal government climate change policies like escalating carbon taxes and a goal to dramatically reduce nitrogen fertilizer use by 2030, which could hit farmers hard and threaten Canada’s status as a food exporter.

There’s also concern over soaring input costs and pandemic-induced supply chain issues that are making it more difficult to obtain farm equipment and parts, says one grain producer.

On April 1, the federal government, despite record high fuel prices, increased its carbon tax by 25 per cent, raising the cost of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to fossil fuel consumption to $50 per ton. For consumers, that translates into an additional 2.21 cents per litre for gasoline and 2.68 cents for diesel. For Alberta farmers, who don’t pay carbon tax on dyed farm fuel, it means paying even more for fuels like propane and natural gas that are used extensively for grain drying and heat. Also, most agriculture service industries are subject to carbon tax and pass on the added expense to farmers, who are at the mercy of grain markets.

“The challenges, in terms of what it is for farmers right off the bat, are of course the expenses,” says Tara Sawyer, chairperson of Alberta Barley. “That’s an expense we cannot pass on to the rest of the chain of our users. I mean, we are getting hit with that carbon tax in more than one area. There’s the cost on our inputs, and there’s transportation and we can’t recover that cost.”

Farmers want to reduce GHG emissions, explains Sawyer, but she fears politicians are not recognizing the work already completed by grain producers. She argues many farmers have already achieved net zero GHG emissions – adding to the frustration over Canada’s goal to reduce nitrogen fertilizer emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

According to a Government of Canada press release, nitrogen fertilizer causes the release of nitrous oxide, a potent GHG. The agriculture sector, they explain, produced around 10 per cent of Canada’s total GHG emissions since 1990.

“What more do they want us to do?” says Sawyer. “First of all, we’ve already implemented a lot of technology that has allowed us to reduce those emissions. And there’s pressure because we are not being given credit for what we’ve been doing for the last number of years. We have a world we need to feed. We are an exporting nation.”

Input costs on Sawyer’s farm near Acme, Alta., have doubled in the last year. Fertilizer prices have skyrocketed. Compounding matters, many prairie farmers are coming off a drought year, so there’s less grain in storage and less money to cover expenses.

“To have a government statement issued saying you’ve got seven years … I mean don’t take away money from research and innovation then because those are some of the tools we need,” she says. “Don’t take away the tools of the fertilizer we use. How we farm has improved exponentially. We’ve moved into no till, offering carbon sequestration. We have GPS, so we are not overlapping in fields.”

In a 2021 report commissioned by Fertilizer Canada, a fertilizer industry advocacy and research group, MNP said Canada’s aspiration to massively reduce nitrogen fertilizer use, if realized, would be devastating and cost growers approximately $48 billion over the next seven years.

When the federal government announced its fertilizer emissions target it did so without consulting provincial, agricultural or other critical stakeholders, says Karen Proud, president and CEO of Fertilizer Canada in a press release.

The Government of Canada says on its website that fertilizers play a major role in farmers’ success and have enabled record harvests over the last decade. Fertilizers drive increased yields, sales and exports, they explain.

“However, nitrous oxide emissions, particularly those associated with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use have also grown significantly,” they say. “That is why the Government of Canada has set the national fertilizer emissions reduction target, which is part of the commitment to reduce total GHG emissions in Canada by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030.”

In addition to climate change policies affecting farmers’ bottom line, Sawyer is also worried about global supply chain problems and inflation. Also, she’s expecting another drought year.

“Getting equipment, getting parts. We just bought a new drill (seeder) and it’s just getting here now,” she says. “We’re supposed to start seeding in the next couple weeks. That’s cutting it a little close. The cost of equipment has also gone up.”

Foothills MP John Barlow, shadow minister for agriculture, agri-food and food security says producers are anxious about climate change policies that are making farming more difficult, adding an imminent global food shortage means Canada must maintain agriculture output.

“On the flip side, we can’t achieve those goals if we’re continuing to be held back by bad government policy like continued increases in the carbon tax, fertilizer prices, failing supply chain, labour crisis and fertilizer reduction,” he says. “All of these things have happened because of bad policy with no consultation or input from producers.”

Canada’s recently announced GHG targets are unrealistic, asserts Barlow. He says there is no agriculture stakeholder on Ottawa’s Net-Zero Advisory Body. It’s time, he says, to unleash the potential of Canadian agriculture to help rebuild the post-COVID economy and ensure Canada has a prominent position on the world stage. He wonders why the federal government is “doing everything it possibly can” to discourage Canadian agriculture.

“This is what happens when decisions are based on activism and not on sound science and data,” he says.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Government of Canada department responsible for agriculture regulation, said in a recent statement it met with producer groups and provincial and territorial partners in 2021 to discuss GHG targets.

David Yager, a Canadian energy analyst, says people who write climate policy in Canada are oblivious to economic principles. He says the real issue isn’t what climate activists are doing, but why they are doing it.

“Of all the things that the entire climate change file has completely ignored, or chosen to ignore, or doesn’t know enough to ignore, is the role of fossil fuels in the food chain,” he says. “Something like half the population of the world is fed by nitrogen-based fertilizer. I’ve watched the entire climate debate unfold with absolutely nobody talking about food or the impact of food or the cost of food. The whole climate debate has been that the cost of doing nothing is so huge that the short-term costs are irrelevant.”

The prime minister’s office, asserts Yager, has told the world that Canada plans to exceed its 2030 GHG targets. He wonders how that’s going to happen, adding it’s been “open season” on the oil and gas sector. The federal government, he explains, has followed through when it comes to pushing back against the energy sector.

“The sleeping giant is food,” he says. “Now, one of the reasons they are doing this, and this is another twist, is the demographics of Canadian politics is just astounding. Sixty-five per cent of voters live in urban centres. Urban voters that support the NDP and Liberals have absolutely no idea where anything comes from. They don’t know where their food and gasoline come from. When it comes to Western Canada and farmers and oil producers, they go: ‘What’s that noise? What’s your problem?”

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