This article originally appeared in RealAgriculture on June 26, 2023.
In the fall of 2022 the world’s population cracked 8 billion and we are projected to hit 8.5 billion by 2030, a year that coincides with many ambitious climate objectives. One of those objectives is a voluntary target of reducing GHG emissions from the application of nitrogen fertilizer by 30 per cent set by the federal government. As we look ahead to the challenges we face in the coming years, feeding the world’s growing population is essential, but doing it sustainably will be just as important. Balancing these demands will require advancements in products, technology, and research driven by innovation.
Fertilizer is a critical piece in the food security puzzle, responsible for half of the world’s current food production. When used correctly, fertilizers increases crop yields, prevent soil degradation, improve the nutritional values of crops, and allow farmers to grow more food on less land. As farmers rise to the occasion to meet the growing demand for food, they are also faced with the challenge of producing that food with the smallest environmental footprint. Increasingly Canadian farmers have adopted 4R Nutrient Stewardship, a suite of best management practices (BMPs) that help farmers use fertilizer sustainably by following the principles of Right Source @ Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place.
Plants still need the same 17 essential nutrients that they have always needed, but the fertilizer industry is continuously evolving to meet the fundamental challenge of getting those nutrients to plants in the most efficient and effective way. Innovation is important for furthering sustainable farming, not only in the application of fertilizer but in the fertilizers themselves. Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers (EEFs) are fertilizer products that control nutrient release or alter reactions in the soil. By slowing down reactions, the nutrients stay in the soil longer giving the crop more time to take them up and reduce nutrient loss to the environment in the form of emissions. EEFs provide farmers with a right source solution that when used in combination with the other 4Rs, including placement, timing, and rate of application, can reap major benefits both economically and environmentally.
EEFs can include products with special coatings that slow down the release of nutrients, such as polymer coated urea. Another type of EEF is an inhibitor supplement that is used with nitrogen fertilizers, such as urease and/or nitrification inhibitors, that slow reactions in the soil. These products can be used individually as single inhibitors or together as dual inhibitors, depending on the need of the crop, type of soil, and climate where the crop is grown.
These scientifically proven products have seen impressive results internationally and in Canadian fields. A study done in Alberta and published in the Soil Science Society of America Journal found EEF inhibitors reduced net N2O emissions by 32-42 per cent. These innovative products are important not just because they help advance sustainable farming, but they also protect crop yields. Farmers need all the tools at their disposal to reduce emissions while also growing as much nutritious food as possible.
Support for innovation in fertilizer product development is critical in helping Canada reduce fertilizer emissions by 2030 and beyond. The fertilizer industry understands the value innovation brings and invests in research and development to help farmers grow their crops while reducing their GHG emissions.
Implementing 4R best management practices, such as using EEFs, are necessary for Canada to reach its on-farm emission reduction goals, but support for farmers is needed. In Fertilizer Canada’s most recent Fertilizer Use Survey, one of the top barriers to adoption of 4R BMPs was a lack of incentives. This is where the federal government needs to work with farm groups to help farmers reach the ambitious goals they have set for emissions reduction.
Farmers need programs that encourage adoption of BMPs that reduce GHG emissions, such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s On-Farm Climate Action Fund. It is vital that these programs prioritize innovation and take an aggressive approach to recognizing the promise of technologies and products. As each farm is unique and requires a different approach for nutrient management it is also important programs give farmers and their trusted agronomists the freedom to create a 4R management plan that is tailored to their farm and region. Each year we have seen awareness of 4R practices increase in the Fertilizer Use Survey, but the clock is ticking, and we only have six growing seasons left until 2030. The federal government’s support must be as ambitious as its emissions reduction goals.