Discussion document: Reducing emissions arising from the application of fertilizer in Canada's agriculture sector


In December 2020, the Government of Canada announced its Strengthened Climate Plan, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy.” It includes a number of measures affecting the agriculture sector, with a goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and increase carbon sequestration. This discussion paper addresses one of these measures: a national target to reduce absolute levels of GHG emissions arising from fertilizer application by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030.


Beneficial management practice
Million hectares
Mt CO2e
Megatonnes (million tonnes) of carbon dioxide equivalent
Nitrous oxide


Agriculture was responsible for approximately 10% of Canada’s GHG emissions in 2019, or 73 Mt CO2, which come from three main sources: enteric fermentation (24Mt), crop production (24Mt) , and on-farm fuel use (14Mt) (National Inventory Report, 2021.) Based on current data for 2019, emissions from synthetic fertilizers accounted for 12.75 Mt. While many players in the agriculture sector are already working to improve nutrient management and reduce emissions associated with crop production, fertilizers are responsible for a growing share of overall agricultural emissions.

The Government of Canada recognizes the important work farmers do as stewards of the land, and 2021 demonstrated the extraordinary challenges farmers face on the front lines of climate change. Extreme weather events are projected to become more severe and costly for the agricultural sector in the coming decades. The need to act is urgent. The Green Agricultural Plan (The Plan), currently under development, will provide an integrated and coordinated approach to addressing agri-environmental issues in the sector, including climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience, water, biodiversity and soil health. It is highlighted in the Strengthened Climate Plan as a means to support the agriculture sector’s actions on climate change and other environmental priorities towards 2030 and 2050.

The Plan will respond to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food’s 2021 Mandate Letter to increase support to farmers to develop and adopt agricultural management practices to reduce emissions, store carbon in healthy soil and enhance resiliency, triple funding for clean tech on farms, including for renewable energy, precision agriculture and energy efficiency, and work with farmers and stakeholders to reduce methane and fertilizer emissions in the agricultural sector.

The Plan will help also inform sector-based activities to contribute to national GHG emission reduction targets under the Emission Reduction Plan led by ECCC, through the targets and solutions identified under the climate mitigation issue area. Overall the Plan would support the sustainable growth of the agriculture sector while improving environmental performance and strengthening Canada’s food system.

In November 2021, Canadian agricultural ministers released the Guelph Statement, highlighting the need to tackle climate change and reduce GHG emissions to ensure the vitality of the sector. Environmental protection will position producers to seize economic opportunities and grow sustainably.

The fertilizer emission target is ambitious, but achievable. It is intended to build upon the sector’s work to date, and increase adoption of region- and farm-specific approaches that will reverse the trend of rising emissions arising from fertilizer use while maintaining the sector’s competitiveness and Canada’s reputation as a top producer and exporter of quality crops. To a large extent, the required technologies and practices already exist. It is now a question of how to increase their use, identify and address any challenges or shortcomings, and ensure that farmers have the knowledge and support required to do so. This consultation is a key part of the Government of Canada’s efforts to develop a collaborative approach to meet this target.

In March 2021, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) launched a series of informal, targeted engagement sessions to seek early feedback from the agriculture sector, including commodity and grower associations, provinces, and industry organizations. These sessions informed this discussion paper, the current phase of consultation, and engagement plans. A summary of what was heard during these sessions can be found in Annex A.

This second phase of the engagement process will seek feedback from farmers, provinces, territories, Indigenous peoples, local authorities, the private sector, non-government organizations, and the public. Section Three of this paper describes how you can provide input, which will inform policy development and the Government’s next steps to reduce emissions arising from fertilizer use in Canadian agriculture.

Agriculture is a shared responsibility between Canada’s federal, provincial, and territorial governments, all of which work together to support Canadian farmers through agricultural policy frameworks (the current is the Canadian Agricultural Partnership 2018 – 2023). The Government of Canada is committed to working with all partners and stakeholders to develop an approach to meet this target and build upon work already underway in the agriculture sector and beyond.

The Case for Action

The consequences of climate change are being felt right now here in Canada and around the planet. The science is clear that existing efforts are not enough to avoid catastrophic effects and that more needs to be done to address climate change, and on a faster timeline. The recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C found that to keep global warming below 1.5°C, net human caused emissions of CO2 need to fall globally by about 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero around 2050.

Climate change is already intensifying the water cycle, resulting in more intense rainfall and flooding in some regions with more intense droughts in other regions. Extreme weather and an ongoing global pandemic underline why 2022 is a crucial year for climate action and ensuring international collaboration in the fight against climate change. It also points to the need for clear and decisive action here at home, where all Canadians and all sectors of the economy are being called upon to do their part to reduce emissions and build climate resiliency.

Since the release of Canada’s Strengthened Climate Plan, the Government of Canada has moved swiftly to implement its key aspects in order to create jobs, grow the economy and protect the planet. In April 2021, in line with its obligations under the Paris Agreement, the Government of Canada announced a new GHG emissions reduction target of 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2030. This target, along with other developments such as the passage of the Canadian Net Zero Emissions Accountability Act, which enshrines in legislation Canada’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions across the Canadian economy by 2050, highlights the need to reduce absolute GHG emissions across all economic sectors, including agriculture.

Objectives of the National Target for Fertilizer Emissions

The defining challenge for Canadian agriculture in the 21st century will be to reduce absolute GHG emissions, and ultimately reach net-zero emissions by 2050, while finding ways to increase yields and economic growth – all while feeding a growing global population.

The fertilizer target’s objective is to contribute to lower GHG emissions from the agriculture sector, building on and leveraging public and private programs and initiatives. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to meeting the target. Canada’s agriculture sector stretches from coast to coast, and varies by crop, soil, and region However, technology and practices that can meet this target do exist, and more solutions continue to be developed through additional research. One of the challenges is understanding how best to support farmers in implementing these practices on a broader scale.

By developing a national approach, drawing on a range of policy measures based on existing knowledge and practices and new and emerging research, this target will build on the innovation, expertise, dedication, and ingenuity of Canada’s farmers and private sector enterprises to improve nutrient management and reduce emissions while maintaining and improving the quality and yields Canadian agriculture is known for around the world.

The target applies to both direct (following fertilizer application) and indirect (from nitrogen leached from fields and volatilized to the atmosphere as ammonia) emissions from the application of fertilizer. It does not address emissions associated with the manufacturing of fertilizers, but it does recognize the potential for emissions reductions resulting from the use of new and novel fertilizer products. The reduction target is set relative to 2020 levels, which will be published as part of Canada’s 2022 National Inventory Report (NIR) on Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada. Based on current data for 2019, in which emissions from synthetic fertilizers accounted for 12.75 Mt CO2e, the fertilizer target is anticipated to translate to a reduction of approximately 4Mt of CO2e.

Improvements are regularly made to Canada’s official GHG accounting methodology, reflecting ongoing improvement of scientific understanding and data sources. Updated methodology for cropland emissions has been peer-reviewed and will be formally applied in Canada’s next NIR, due for release in April 2022. While these updates may impact the exact number of Mts required to meet the fertilizer emissions target, the purpose of this paper is to discuss how to reduce those emissions and remains relevant despite potential minor fluctuations.

In order to achieve a concrete reduction in overall emissions, the target is established relative to absolute emissions rather than emissions intensity. 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.

Fertilizers and Agriculture Production

Fertilizers are an essential input for Canada’s agricultural crops. They have helped drive increases in Canadian crop yields over time, in the process leading to increased grain sales and exports, record farm gate receipts, and prosperity for Canada’s farm families. However, the application of nitrogen (N) fertilizer in particular results in nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions, a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 265 to 298Footnote1 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100-year period.

Furthermore, as N can take various forms as it cycles through the air, soil, and water, any unused N (not taken up by the growing plant) can be released into the broader environment with unintended consequences for water and biodiversity. In addition to N2O, N can volatilize from soils as ammonia, which can be harmful for biodiversity and travel extensive distances and react with particulate matter to cause smog. It can also take the form of nitrate, which is a highly soluble form that can move easily into waterways and groundwater.

Given the essential role of N fertilizer in Canadian agriculture, actions to achieve emissions reductions will focus on improving nitrogen management and optimizing fertilizer use, and not on a mandatory reduction in the use of fertilizers. For example, practices such as the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers, minimizing Fall application and/or broadcasting of fertilizers, increased use of pulses in crop rotations, and annual soil testing can improve nitrogen use efficiency and reduce emissions. Solutions exist that will allow us to meet this target through innovative and collaborative approaches, building on the leadership already exhibited by farmers, including through voluntary implementation of Fertilizer Canada’s 4R approach. Through this engagement process we want to hear from you about how we can expand the use and scale of measures that will achieve the complementary objectives of optimized fertilizer use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and maintained or improved yields.

A Snapshot of Current Emissions

Between 2005 and 2019, fertilizer use increased by 71% in Canada, primarily driven by growing fertilizer sales in Western Canada (BC, AB, SK, and MB). Over the same period, N2O emissions from fertilizer application in Canada increased by 54%Footnote2, with direct and indirect emissions associated with synthetic fertilizer N2O emissions in 2019 at 12.75Mt CO2e (National Inventory Report, 2021).

Figure 1 shows total (direct and indirect)Footnote3 N2O emissions resulting from synthetic fertilizer application between 2005 and 2019. While there has been some inter-year variation, the trend is one of increasing emissions over time, and is directly correlated to the amount of fertilizer applied.

Figure 1: Direct and indirect emissions from synthetic fertilizer application, 2005 to 2019 (NIR 2021)
Description of above image
Figure 1: Direct and indirect emissions from synthetic fertilizer, 2005 to 2019
2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Indirect emissions (leaching and volatization) (Mt CO2e)* 1.405451 1.40486 1.695978 1.695978 1.684187
Direct emissions (Mt CO2e) 6.893705 6.873382 7.833271 8.182451 8.227483
Amount of synthetic fertilizer applied (tonnes) 1,539,450 1,539,945 1,756,000 1,913,000 1,878,000
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Indirect emissions (leaching and volatization) (Mt CO2e)* 1.706242 1.765864 2.003136 2.154777 2.1114
Direct emissions (Mt CO2e) 8.3618 8.645521 9.765124 10.43428 10.25529
Amount of synthetic fertilizer applied (tonnes) 1,924,000 2,009,000 2,311,000 2,505,000 2,471,000
2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Indirect emissions (leaching and volatization) (Mt CO2e)* 2.186256 2.176803 2.027983 2.224113 2.194472
Direct emissions (Mt CO2e) 10.56683 10.57919 9.747028 10.76751 10.5636
Amount of synthetic fertilizer applied (tonnes) 2,588,000 2,556,000 2,411,000 2,641,000 2,640,000

Increased N2O emissions on cropland are driven by the combined effect of a continued increase in area under annual crop production (e.g., conversion of pasture to land for annual crop production), an increase in the area under fertilizer intensive crops, and an increase in soil degradation which has contributed to carbon (C) and N losses from soils. The area under more fertilizer-intensive crops such as canola and corn has expanded considerably since 2001, while the area of some crops requiring lower fertilizer rates, such as wheat, barley, oats and tame hay has decreased (Figure 2 below).

As well, the intensity of N2O emissions per hectare has nearly doubled since 1981. This is a result of increased fertilizer application rates coupled with only a minimal expansion of the total Canadian agricultural area. This intensification of production, supported through increased fertilizer use and improvements in breeding and pest and disease control, has resulted in higher yields on a per area basis.

Figure 2: Changes in field crop area between 2001 and 2021
Description of above image
2001 2006 2011 2016 2021
Canola 3,826,800 5,283,300 7,684,700 8,410,900 9,096,700
Corn for grain 1,294,200 1,093,100 1,291,600 1,452,200 1,413,100
Total wheat 10,950,500 9,852,200 8,726,200 9,624,800 9,492,600
Barley 4,700,200 3,689,900 2,666,400 2,701,800 3,357,000
Oats 1,907,400 2,063,500 1,312,900 1,232,300 1,385,100
Tame hay 7,663,400 8,237,000 6,984,800 5,882,600 5,180,300

Regional Variations

Fertilizer induced emissions are not spatially or temporally uniform across Canadian agricultural landscapes. The seasonal pattern of N2O emissions reflects the interaction between soil temperature, soil water and nitrate availability. Drier regions of the Prairies have much lower N2O losses than the moister regions of Eastern Canada. N2O emissions per hectare are greater in Eastern Canada as a result of the wetter climate and greater N application rates. However, the much larger land area in the Prairies vs. Eastern Canada results in greater total N fertilizer application in the Prairies and thus the total emissions are much higher in this region.

It is important to note that the strategies required to achieve the 30% N2O emission reduction objective will vary across the country as the emissions reduction potential is impacted by biophysical factors (soil type, soil humidity, climate), crop types, and climate change impacts.Footnote4

Figure 3 illustrates the differences between the fertilizer induced emissions patterns across the country, showing N2O emissions per hectare in 2018. The intensity of fertilizer emissions (emissions per ha) is higher east of Saskatchewan, indicating that more fertilizer is applied per hectare, resulting in more direct emissions on a per-acre basis. In addition, wetter conditions in the East result in more direct and indirect emissions.

Figure 3: Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions per hectare (2018)
Description of above image

Figure 3: Nitrous oxide emissions per hectare

Map of Canada showing the differences between the fertilizer induced emissions patterns across the country, showing kilograms of N2O emissions per hectare in 2018. The intensity of fertilizer emissions (emissions per ha) is higher east of Saskatchewan, indicating that more fertilizer is applied per hectare, resulting in more direct emissions on a per-acre basis. In addition, wetter conditions in the East result in more direct and indirect emissions. Figures range from 0 to over 2.0 KG of N2O-N /hectare. The highest concentrations are located in pockets of Western Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

International Comparison

Canada accounts for approximately 1% of global agricultural emissions. However, available data show that Canadian cereal production likely has one of the highest levels of emissions intensity (i.e. amount of GHGs emitted per unit of product) amongst major exporting countries, as seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Emissions Intensity for Cereal Crops, 2005-2017Footnote5
Description of above image
Figure 4: Average Emissions Intensity for Cereal Crops (excluding rice), 2005-2017
Region Emissions Intensity
(Kg of CO2 per Kg of product)
Australia 0.227575
Brazil 0.196146
Canada 0.249892
France 0.121315
Mexico 0.186938
Russia 0.139192
Ukraine 0.141346
USA 0.208846
EU 0.187469
OECD 0.207062
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization Emissions Intensity Database

While the figures in the chart above reflect an average over 2005 to 2017, according to the FAO’s Emissions Intensity Database, Canada’s emission intensity (kg of CO2e per kg of product) for cereals has risen from 0.22 in 2005 to 0.26 in 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available). Canada’s emission intensity for cereals in 2017 is higher than those reported for the United States (0.21), the European Union (0.19) and the OECD (0.20) for the same year. However, it is important to note that the figures in the chart above do not control for variation in the composition of cereal production across countries.

Other jurisdictions have also prioritized reducing emissions associated with fertilizer application and are taking different approaches to achieve this objective. The European Union has introduced an absolute emissions reduction target, and aims to achieve it through a 20% reduction of fertilizer use compared to 2020. It is expected the EU will present an Integrated Nutrient Management Action Plan in 2022 to outline measures to achieve this goal. In addition, New Zealand has introduced a target for all greenhouse gases – except for biogenic methane from agriculture and waste – to reach net zero by 2050. A number of measures have been proposed to achieve these reductions, such as on-farm emissions pricing systems, carbon border adjustment mechanisms, and sustainable nutrient management.

Economic Implications

From an economic perspective, fertilizer plays a fundamental role for both individual farms and Canadian agriculture as a whole. Fertilizers and related services are a key input cost that farmers must account for every growing season. They are also an essential determinant in crop yields, and therefore influence a farm’s balance sheet both in terms of expenditures and revenues. Farmers weigh these factors (among others, such as time) when deciding how and when to apply fertilizer – and how much of it to apply.

Depending on the crop, the farm location, local weather, soil type, and other farm specific characteristics, more targeted fertilizer use and other practices have the potential to both reduce costs and increase yields. Furthermore, avoiding the application of fertilizer at times or locations where it is not required by crops may not only reduce input costs, but can also result in long-term improvements in soil health and water quality. In other cases, depending on the characteristics of the individual farm, the economic costs of adopting different fertilizers or fertilizer management practices may outweigh any potential yield increase.

The potential economic impacts of applying different beneficial management practices (BMPs) are expected to span a wide range and may result in either net costs or net benefits to farmers. For example, a recent study prepared for Farmers for Climate SolutionsFootnote6 has estimated that the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizer in Prairies for wheat would cost approximately $74 per hectare on average. On the other hand, the same study estimates that the same measure for corn in the Prairies can actually increase revenues by $20 per hectare on average. Of course, the particular situation of any given farm are such that average cost and benefit estimates may not appropriately reflect the true impacts for a particular producer.

There is no single universally applicable path for reducing emissions from fertilizer. A tailored approach will therefore be necessary in order to reduce emissions most cost-effectively. In addition, there remains a high degree of uncertainty and complexity resulting from incomplete data and also a large number of variables related to different crop types, regional variations, fluctuations in growing conditions from one season to the next, and various other factors. Data will need to be developed more fully as part of ongoing and future efforts to meet the emissions reduction target. Work is ongoing at AAFC to better measure both the GHG mitigation potential and the economic costs and benefits associated with different BMPs at the level of individual farms.

Practices to Reduce Fertilizer Emissions

During the first phase of consultations, stakeholders identified a number of opportunities to improve nutrient management and reduce emissions associated with fertilizer application. These can broadly be categorized as those related to the principles of Fertilizer Canada’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship and related BMPs, and those that do not fall under the 4R approach. Given its prominence in the sector, 4R is discussed separately here although there are potential areas of overlap.

Background on 4R Nutrient Stewardship

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship approach, developed by Fertilizer Canada, was raised by a large number of stakeholders during the first phase of consultations as a pathway for achieving emissions reductions. This approach is designed to promote sustainable use of fertilizer in crop production and can reduce GHG emissions by focusing on the “4 Rs” of fertilizer application:

  • Right source matches the fertilizer type to crop needs. This encompasses the use of synthetic versus organic fertilizers, as well as fertilizers with different nutrient compositions and different formats (liquid, granular, seed-banded, slow release, manure etc.) and products that include additives such as nitrification and urease inhibitors;
  • Right rate matches the amount of fertilizer to crop needs. This entails only applying what can be taken up by the crop over the course of the growing season. This recommendation can include precision application technologies (including those that address in-field variability), and the use of soil tests to make nutrient management decisions accounting for existing soil nutrient levels;
  • Right time means nutrients are available when crops need them. This could include practices such as split application (applying at seeding as well as later at critical crop growth stages) or avoiding applying fertilizer in the fall when there is a higher risk of loss through spring runoff; and,
  • Right place means nutrients are placed where crops can use them. This recommendation includes practices such as banding whereby the fertilizer is applied in concentrated strips; side dressing whereby fertilizers are placed in a row adjacent to the crop, or seed-placed, where fertilizers are placed in the same furrow as the seed. This includes practices such as broadcasting where possible, whereby nutrients are spread on the surface of the soil (or growing crop) and which can lead to inefficiencies and losses to the broader environment.

The 4R approach focuses on a number of best practices that are customized to address the climatic, soil, cropping and operational conditions of each farm. Examples include regular soil testing, timing fertilizer application to minimize emissions, and the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers. Qualified specialists, such as Certified Crop Advisors, help develop management plans for sustainable fertilizer application. These can take the form of basic, intermediate, and advanced levels of 4R Nutrient Stewardship, depending on the approach adopted by any particular farmer.

There is widespread recognition that the principles underlying the 4R practices can reduce emissions from N fertilizer. Existing data from Fertilizer Canada and the 4R Research Network indicate that the implementation of a 4R program can reduce fertilizer-related emissions while maintaining and/or improving crop yields, with suggestions that the widespread adoption of 4R in Western Canada could reduce emissions by 2 to 3 megatonnes – or 50 to 75% of the Government’s emission reduction target.

Preliminary scientific assessments by AAFC confirm that the widespread adoption of some practices associated with 4R could lead to large-scale emissions reductions. For example, analysis indicates that the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers containing both nitrification and urease inhibitors could reduce emissions by 15 to 35%, translating to approximately 2.4 Mt per year, and split applying fertilizer (at seeding and later in the growing season) could provide 15-35% reductions over regular N fertilizer practices. Additionally, according to Fertilizer Canada’s 2019 Survey, about 20% of canola producers in AB and SK, and 44% of canola producers in Manitoba that participated in the survey indicated that they applied fertilizer in the fall of the previous year. While it is acknowledged that fall application can be a time-saving practice, it also entails higher risks of losses from flooding and run-off events in spring, resulting in greater environmental impacts. Further details on AAFC’s scientific assessments of potential emission reductions can be found in Annex B.

There is also support in Canada’s agriculture sector for the 4R approach. Provincial governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island have established relationships or programs via various agreements or memoranda of cooperation with Fertilizer Canada to promote 4R. Various industry organizations also support the initiative with some setting targets to utilize 4R management practices. As well, during the first phase of consultation, producers and stakeholders repeatedly emphasized the importance of 4R Nutrient Stewardship and associated efforts to increase its adoption.

Despite high levels of awareness, there are opportunities to enhance 4R implementation and uptake. Surveys indicate that while many farmers are aware of the 4R concept, only some (approximately 25%) have worked with a 4R Designated or certified agronomist, and that less than 10% of farmers indicated that they have a formal 4R plan of any kind in place (Source: Fertilizer Canada Fertilizer Use Survey, 2019). Furthermore, a lack of publically accessible data regarding fertilizer sales and use was raised by some stakeholders as an obstacle to better monitoring, reporting, decision making, and awareness. Overall, while adoption of at least some 4R practices exists in most regions across the country, in order to maximize emissions reductions it will be necessary to aim for more widespread adoption at higher performance levels.

Other Opportunities to Reduce Emissions

In addition to the principles outlined in 4R Nutrient Stewardship, stakeholders have identified a number of other opportunities that can help contribute to improving nitrogen management and reducing associated GHG emissions. For example, the practice of replacing synthetic fertilizer with manures, compost, or digestate has the potential to reduce emissions by 10-20%. Enhanced conservation management practices, including improved drainage design and conservation tillage, have an emissions reduction potential of up to 30% with increased adoption. Additional examples of potential opportunities can be found in Annex B.

Opportunities have also been suggested related to the manufacture and sale of fertilizers, such as introducing a maximum guarantee for nitrogen content in synthetic fertilizer (as opposed to the current minimum guarantee), as well as consideration of a sales quota for enhanced efficiency fertilizers which improve nutrient use efficiency, such as those containing nitrification and/or urease inhibitors. There may also be opportunities for innovation around fertilizer production including the use of green ammonia to reduce life-cycle emissions.

While existing initiatives are moving the needle on emissions reductions in the agriculture sector, more needs to be done to meet Canada’s emissions reduction target. Moreover, more sustainable fertilizer practices can help create new market opportunities, meet shifting consumer demands for agricultural products, and enhance the health of the soil over the longer-term.

Discussion Issues

This section focuses on relevant discussion issues as identified during the first phase of the consultation process, which identified possible opportunities and challenges related to the emissions target. Each discussion issue is accompanied by a short background and a set of questions. Where applicable, potential opportunities are highlighted to help guide discussion. Throughout, there is recognition of the shared responsibility for fertilizer management in Canada, and the important roles to be played by provinces, territories, Indigenous governments, municipal governments, and others.

Issue 1: Developing a Strategic Approach to meeting the Fertilizer Emissions Target

Background - Issue 1

As outlined above, for many emissions-reducing practices, the knowledge and awareness exists in the sector already and there is an achievable, but ambitious, pathway to enhancing the efficiency of fertilizer use while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts of N on the environment. However, the key challenge is to increase adoption rates while recognizing that the application of practices must be tailored to the regional and other specificities of individual farms. In addition, it is important to recognize that, because current fertilizer practices have been working for farmers in terms of yield and return on investment, changing practices to reduce environmental impacts can be seen as risky at the farm level in the short-term.

During the first phase of the consultation process, producers, partners and stakeholders highlighted a variety of challenges and barriers which can prevent the widespread uptake of practices to reduce emissions. Many of these were related to upfront investments of both time and money that would be required to implement new technologies and strategies to reduce emissions. There were also comments related to complexity, awareness of solutions, access to objective advice, and availability of data, among others.

Federal and provincial governments already have a number of programs available to support producers in adopting more efficient nutrient management practices. For example:

  • Under the Agriculture Climate Solutions On-Farm Climate Action Fund, the federal government has made $200 million available to support adoption of beneficial management practices on-farm, including a focus on nutrient management;
  • Under the Agriculture Climate Solutions Living Labs Program, a national network of living laboratories is being established to support demonstration and knowledge transfer regarding beneficial practices that are tailored to regional realities; and
  • Under the Canadian Agriculture Partnership, federal and provincial governments invest in key priorities, including supporting provincial programs to offer access to Environmental Farm Plans and financial support to adopt new beneficial management practices.

In order to ensure the success of Canada’s emissions reduction target it is important that any future policies contain measures that are accessible to the sector and translate into actual emissions reductions. Moreover, more sustainable fertilizer practices can help create new market opportunities, meet shifting consumer demands for agricultural products, and enhance the health of the soil over the longer-term. The Government of Canada is interested in hearing your views on existing barriers to adoption and how these can be overcome.

Discussion Questions - Issue 1

  • What are the biggest barriers to the adoption of practices that reduce emissions from fertilizer application and how can these best be overcome?
  • What steps can be taken to increase adoption of practices or the use of new, enhanced efficiency fertilizer products that hold the potential to reduce emissions from fertilizer application?
  • In addition to existing programs, how can governments best work with industry and producers to mobilize increased adoption of emissions-reducing practices? What are the appropriate roles for the agriculture sector, governments and other partners and stakeholders in meeting this target?

Issue 2: Data, Reporting, and Measurement

Background - Issue 2

During the first phase of the consultation process, stakeholders frequently raised issues related to data collection and reporting, as well as how emissions reductions will be measured and accounted for. Many stakeholders felt that a number of data gaps exist in the measurement and reporting of fertilizer-related emissions, including in the National Inventory Report (NIR) methodology, and that publically-available, high quality data on fertilizer use are not always widely available.

In particular, stakeholders were concerned that the current NIR methodology may not fully account for emission reductions achieved as part of the target. This is due in part to the current methodology’s approach to measurement of emissions, and challenges with obtaining and measuring data at the individual farm level. While improvements in NIR reporting on N2O are underway and expected to be implemented in time for publication in 2022, these improvements do not yet capture on-farm activity related to fertilizer application practices due to a lack of data at this scale.

Moving forward, the Government of Canada is open to reviewing these methodologies and data sources in partnership with stakeholders, to ensure the accurate measurement of on-farm emissions reductions. This could include further engagement, such as the launch of a formal government-industry working group or third party monitor, to better understand the impacts of on-farm BMPs at a working level and improve data quality, transparency and accessibility regarding existing fertilizer usage and practices. However, challenges in this regard can include establishing reliable and internationally-acceptable measures, availability of tools to accurately reflect individual practices, and the potential for increased reporting burden for farms.

Discussion Questions - Issue 2

  • How can important data on the changes in emissions from fertilizer application be more consistently and comprehensively collected, analyzed and reported?
  • What would be the most effective way for Government and industry to work in partnership to collect and make public detailed fertilizer use and 4R-related data to better understand areas where there has been success, or opportunities for improvement?
  • What considerations need to be taken into account to ensure better and more accurate reporting of farm-level data while minimizing the reporting burden at the individual farm level?

Issue 3: Innovation and Transformation Opportunities

Background - Issue 3

In thinking about a long term vision and plan for Canadian agriculture, it is important to consider how technology can continue to support transformation in the sector. For example, the emergence of non-synthetic alternatives and greater uptake of precision agriculture supported by increasing access to rural broadband over the coming years have the potential to maximize emissions reductions beyond the 2030 target.

During the first phase of consultation, stakeholders highlighted the need to incentivize and support the adoption of new technology to achieve Canada’s national targets. AAFC has already implemented programs, such as the Agricultural Clean Technology Program, to support research and adoption of new technologies. However, this consultation process provides another opportunity to consider what emerging technologies have the highest potential to support emissions reductions to achieve both our 2030 and 2050 targets, and how the Government and industry can help support wide-spread adoption.

Discussion Questions - Issue 3

  • What is the best way for governments and industry to support the emergence of new and innovative solutions to address climate goals, such as emissions reductions?
  • Are there opportunities not listed in this discussion document that you think should be considered as potential pathways for achieving the emissions reduction target for both 2030 and 2050?

Conclusion and Next Steps

This Discussion Paper presents key issues for consideration in how to improve nutrient management in order to meet the Government of Canada's target to reduce N2O emissions associated with fertilizer application by 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. Broad input from provinces, territories, Indigenous peoples, producers, stakeholders, and the public is being sought.

Questions included throughout the document can be used as a guide, but these questions should not limit your feedback. Please submit additional comments to: aafc.fertilizer-engrais.aac@agr.gc.ca

The feedback collected from the public consultation that ended on August 31, 2022 is being used by the Government of Canada to inform next steps in the development and implementation of a strategy to reduce emissions and improve nutrient management in Canadian agriculture.


Annex A: What We Heard Phase One

Over the course of the informal engagement sessions that took place in Spring 2021, AAFC engaged virtually with the provinces and territories and 22 agriculture producer and commodity associations. The Department also received written feedback from 12 stakeholders comprising a mix of provincial and national agriculture organizations and provinces. The feedback received from agriculture stakeholders to date can be categorized under eight main themes:

  • 1 / 2) Concerns on the impact on yield and export growth / absolute emissions vs. emission intensity: Several agriculture commodity and producer associations noted concerns that the fertilizer emissions reduction target could result in a decrease in crop yields. They questioned setting a target based on absolute emissions vs emission intensity which appears to be in direct conflict with the Government of Canada’s export growth target of $75 billion worth of agriculture and agri-food commodities by 2025.
  • 3) Barriers to the adoption of sustainable practices and technologies: Stakeholders identified the cost and availability of technology as a key barrier to the adoption of sustainable practices. For example, lack of rural availability of broadband and limited access to impartial agronomists and precision agriculture technology were raised as obstacles to accurately determining fertilizer needs and using fertilizer more sustainably.
  • 4) A need to incentivize producers to adopt new practices through programs and/or funding: Given stakeholders indicated the target could hinder production and would likely require additional resources, incentives, financial safety nets, and funding to adopt new BMPs were recommended in order to incentivize farmers, encourage adoption of new practices and mitigate financial risk.
  • 5) A need to reflect Canada’s diverse geography and farming practices: In light of Canada’s diverse geography and crops, stakeholders underlined the importance of adopting a regional approach, including data needs, when assessing tools needed to meet the emission reduction target.
  • 6) The importance of communication in order to increase the likelihood of farmer acceptance of the target: It was suggested that a communications campaign targeting farmers focus on the economic and environmental benefits of efficient fertilizer uses, including through case studies. Efforts should be made to educate the public on the role of fertilizers and how they fit within the government emission reduction strategy.
  • 7) Challenges surrounding the development and participation in voluntary agreements: Stakeholder suggested agreements be complementary with other federal agricultural initiatives and aligned with existing practices, such as 4R.
  • 8) A lack of reliable data to accurately measure fertilizer emissions: Stakeholders regarded the need to address the lack of benchmark data, fertilizer-use data, and emissions data in order to accurately measure actual emissions and progress.

Annex B: Potential practices for meeting the target and the potential barriers to adoption and solutions to increase uptake

Any practice that can optimize plant uptake of N and Phosphorus (P) or prevent losses to the environment can be considered as a nutrient management BMP. Nutrient management is an essential step in optimizing crop yield and quality, and key to managing environmental consequences. This entails applying the right type of nutrient sources, such as fertilizer, manure, legumes or compost in the right amount, in the right place and at the right time.

The following table, developed as a result of an in-depth analysis by scientists from AAFC’s Science and Technology Branch, shows the potential for various practices to reduce fertilizer-related emissions, broken down by theme (Rate, Timing, Placement and Source/Type), but also includes other practices such as conservation tillage and enhanced drainage that contribute to the reduction of nitrous oxide emissions.

The highest potential emission reductions can be gained from the use of enhanced efficiency fertilizers with urease and nitrification inhibitors, and current adoption of these technologies is very low across the country. The practice of split application/side dress is also very strongly recommended, particularly where a rate adjustment can be informed by soil tests and/or crop sensors. A further strong recommendation would be the cessation of the practice of fall application. Fall-applied fertilizer is still quite popular on the Prairies. According to Fertilizer Canada’s 2019 Survey, about 20% of canola producers in AB and SK, and 44% of canola producers in Manitoba that participated in the survey indicated that they applied fertilizer in the fall of the previous year. While it is acknowledged that fall application can be a time-saving practice, it also entails higher risks of losses from flooding and run-off events in spring, resulting in greater environmental impacts.

Table 2: Near term (by 2030) implementation of BMPs to reduce N2O emissions from fertilizer application in Canada
BMP Regional applicability Current adoption level Potential new area (Mha) Potential emissions reduction Total emission reduction based on 100% adoption (Mt CO2e /yr) Confidence level Feasibility of adoption
Rate Soil N test annual for spring fertilizer application All regions low 5.7 5-15% 0.23 high medium/ high
Accounting for N in previous legume crop All regions medium/ high 4.9 10-20% 0.63 medium high
Time Applying N in the spring compared to the fall Mainly west high 3.3 5-15% 0.12 medium high
Fertigation (injection of fertilizers with irrigation) Mainly west low 0.3 15-25% 0.02 medium medium
Split application/ sidedress with rate adjustment based on sensors Mainly east medium 1.9 15-35% 0.65 high medium
Placement Apply in bands/injection accompanied by reduced rate All regions high-west medium-east 3.0 5-15% 0.24 high medium/ high
Source Enhanced efficiency fertilizers, inhibitors or slow release All regions very low 18.1 15-35% 2.35 high medium
Replace inorganic fertilizer with manures, compost, or digestate All regions low 1.4 10-20% 0.15 medium high
Conservation management Conservation tillage All regions high-west medium-east 1.6 5-15% 0.15 medium high
Improved drainage design Mainly east medium / high -east 0.6 10-30% 0.13 low medium
Other Increasing legumes in rotations Mainly west low 1.5 15-25% 0.1 medium low/ medium


While this science-based perspective is based on conservative estimates, significant uncertainties remain which suggest that, even if BMPs are as successful as anticipated and are fully adopted, the cumulative reduction at a provincial level (for example) may be less than the estimated potential.

  • Estimates are based on experiments (small plots, research conditions) and may not be realized in every region or every condition at real scale.
  • In some cases, some practices have led to substantive emission reductions under specific conditions, while reversals (increases in emissions) were noted under different research conditions.
  • A number of the BMPs mentioned in this report are not currently captured in the National Inventory Report methods due to lack of farm activity data. Effort is needed to gather this data to capture the extent to which practices have changed from 2005 to present and to incorporate these practices into the inventory methodology.
  • Estimates are relative, meaning they assume a comparison between standard and enhanced practices (BMPs). However, some or even many of these practices are already in use, therefore limiting the potential for further reductions. For example:
    • Considerable effort on the Prairies to move farmers to the 4R approach
    • Most farmers in the Prairies are already using conservation or no tillage
    • There is a reasonable (but variable) acreage of pulse crops already in place