Farmers fight over fertilizers as agriculture’s impact on the environment becomes undeniable

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In the Netherlands, farmers are blocking highways and dumping manure in front of politicians’ houses. In Canada, convoys again block traffic and drive slowly waving Dutch flags. In the United States, former President Donald Trump said in a speech: “In our movement, we stand against climate zealots. We stand with the peaceful Dutch farmers who bravely fight for their freedom. It’s horrible what is happening. He also noted, “They want to get rid of the cattle. Because of what he does to the world. Half the cattle they want to take out. You will be next.”

Apparently it’s fertilizer. The Dutch government wants to reduce nitrogen emissions from livestock and comply with European Union regulations on spreading manure.

In Canada, the government wants to reduce emissions from fertilizer use by 30% by 2030 to meet greenhouse gas targets. In an official statement, the provincial governments of Saskatchewan and Alberta are “disappointed with the federal goal to reduce fertilizer emissions”.

“We are really concerned about this arbitrary target,” said Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister David Marit. “The Trudeau government has seemingly abandoned its attack on the oil and gas industry and has its sights set on Saskatchewan farmers.”


Nitrogen emissions from synthetic fertilizers.

Agriculture Canada


There’s a reason for that. Agricultural emissions account for 10% of total national emissions and are growing every year, up 33% since 1990. Most of these emissions come from nitrogen oxides from the use of fertilizers. And while everyone talks about carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides are often ignored.

Fertilizer was not ignored on Treehugger. We noted that nitrogen fertilizer is made using the Haber-Bosch process: “Fertilizer is made from ammonia, which is made from hydrogen, which is made from natural gas. This makes it a product of fossil fuel; for every molecule of ammonia produced, one molecule of CO2 is a co-product, so when we eat food made with nitrogen fertilizers, we are essentially eating fossil fuels.” This alone could be responsible for 2% of global emissions. But what happens after the fertilizer is applied could be even more critical.

When nitrogen fertilizers are applied to soil, some is taken up by plants, but according to Carbon Brief, much escapes the soil or is washed into rivers or other bodies of water, feeding algae and releasing methane. “A third part is lost to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more potent than CO2. Soil microbes can break down nitrogen fertilizers applied to a field to produce water. ‘nitrous oxide.’

Canadian plaintiffs say fertilizer cuts will lead to lower food production and loss of income. Everyone cites a report from Fertilizer Canada — “an industry association representing Canadian manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilizers” — which is far from an unbiased source. The report says “focusing on absolute emissions reductions, rather than an intensity-based target, is misplaced and will likely cause severe economic damage.”

According to the Toronto Sun:

“In Canada, the Trudeau government is moving forward with a plan to cut fertilizer emissions by 30% to help meet Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. For most farmers, this means reducing fertilizer use by 30%, which means lower crop yields, lower incomes for farm families and higher prices for families at the grocery store. »

This is not necessarily the case. Even Fertilizer Canada says you can reduce emissions without reducing yields by using the 4Rs program:

  • Right Source matches the type of fertilizer to the needs of the crop.
  • Right Rate matches fertilizer amounts to crop needs.
  • Timing means applying more carefully when crops need it.
  • Right Place means more careful application.

He says, “Focusing on absolute emissions is short-sighted and threatens the farming community and the provincial economies that depend on it. We cannot achieve our export or growth goals with this mindset. Focusing on emission intensity will produce better results. for the environment and for farmers.

The Canadian government is not ignoring Fertilizer Canada and said in a statement that “industry-led initiatives like Fertilizer Canada’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship program will also play an important role in promoting the sustainable use of fertilizers.” in agricultural production and can reduce GHG emissions. But it doesn’t budge from its emissions cap in favor of emissions intensity.

The problem with emissions intensity reductions is that they allow overall emissions to grow, even if emissions per barrel go down, and it is the country’s overall emissions that must be reduced. The idea of ​​reducing emissions intensity is appreciated by business and industry because they can continue to grow. As the Columbia Center on Sustainable Development noted:

“Intensity-based decarbonization targets are controversial because they do not guarantee absolute emissions reductions. If a company’s emissions intensity decreases, but its production volume increases at a higher rate, its annual GHG emissions may still increase. Therefore, absolute targets are preferable: a company that sets and meets an absolute emissions target will reduce its carbon footprint, even if its production increases.”

Our world in data


Farmers say it doesn’t matter because the world needs more food, but many of these crops are used to feed animals, not people. In Canada, it’s over 80%. As environmental scientist Mark Sutton told Carbon Brief, it all depends on what we eat for dinner: “If we hadn’t been eating meat-rich diets, the world could clearly have fed more people with less fertilizer.

This takes us back to the Netherlands, where it’s mostly meat. Where Canadians have wide open spaces, according to Sentient Media in the Netherlands, “the country has the highest density of farm animals in Europe and, until this summer, was exempt from EU rules limiting the amount of manure that farmers can spread on the In 2021, there were 3.8 million cows, 11 million pigs and almost 100 million chickens.Due to the huge amounts of excrement and urine these animals produce, intensive farming accounts for almost half of the country’s nitrogen pollution problem.

It has become a political cause in both countries and fresh meat for Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show where the Dutch government is accused of ‘stealing Dutch farmland’ under the guise of ‘a crisis environmental fabricated, but actually part of a Communist plot to turn the Dutch countryside into mass housing for immigrants and enact what is known as the ‘Great Reset.'” In Canada, Dutch support has become the new cause celebre of Carlson’s equally beloved “trucker convoy. Some right-wing sites claim Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is emulating Sri Lanka, which cut all fertilizer imports overnight, saying “Hunger is coming to Canada.

When Civil Eats wrote about nitrous oxide a few years ago, they titled their article “The Greenhouse Gas Nobody Talks About”. Now that it’s become so political, it’s likely that we’ll hear about it and talk about it a lot more.

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