Soaring fertilizer prices could provide a ‘silver lining’ for emissions, but farmers are struggling to limit their use


This story is part of Joint Food and Water Coverage Week of Cover the climate nowa global journalistic collaboration strengthening the coverage of the climate story.

The sudden rise in fertilizer prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have implications for global emissions by reducing the amount of fertilizer farmers use on their fields. But experts say there’s more to the picture, with non-monetary variables like human capital having a big impact on farming decisions.

For decades, farmers have looked for ways to reduce agricultural inputs, with no good solution. So the recent spike in fertilizer prices is just a “flashpoint” that draws attention to an old problem, says Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute executive director Tyler McCann, who raises also cattle and goats in western Quebec.

“Farmers have been considering this for a very, very long time,” McCann said. The energy mix. “Fertilizer prices can help change that financial calculus, but they don’t necessarily address today’s human resource challenges.

As national climate programs focus on limiting emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) from fertilizers, policymakers may find these challenges insurmountable if they don’t take heed account of the intangible impacts that changes in farm management have on people. directly affected. As high fertilizer prices rebalance the cost-return ratios of food production, farmers would benefit from adopting management systems that reduce fertilizer use. But a forthcoming study finds farmers are looking at more than just the financial costs of adopting new approaches, weighing less measurable factors like impacts on family members, work-life balance and time invested. to develop new skills.

The new study, co-authored by Dr. Terry Griffin, cropping systems economist at Kansas State Research and Extension, sheds light on how farmers weighed financial and human capital while considering variable rate technology (TRV) as a tool to reduce fertilizer use. First introduced in the 1990s, VRT uses soil testing and satellite imagery to apply fertilizer at varying rates across a field, depending on soil fertility needs. It can reduce entries—and emissions— increasing yields while wasting less fertilizer.

But despite the promised benefits, many farmers have been reluctant to adopt the new technology, perplexing VRT supporters. Griffin says this reluctance stems from how farmers weigh the costs and benefits of a new farming approach, pointing out that “most studies have ignored non-monetary investments in human capital.”

The new study aims to correct this lack of knowledge and shows, as Ed White abstract in Western Producer, this resistance to VRT is not “a conundrum that defies rationality, as proponents of the technology have suggested”. Instead, it results “from individual farmers more fully assessing the overall costs and benefits of technology to themselves as individuals, to the lives of their families, and to their farms.”

Among the overall costs and benefits that studies often omit is the considerable training and significant management commitment that VRT requires once it is operational. For example, satellite data needs to be cleaned before it can be useful for the VRT, requiring farmers to hire extra help or spend time doing the extra work themselves, says Alberta researcher Tomas Nilsson. , who collaborated with Griffin.

“It’s going to cost you time and money, and sweat and tears in front of the computer,” Nilsson said. “It’s about finding the compromise…. It lets you do more with less, but it forces you to do more.

Older farmers may be harder to convince that a demanding new system is the best use of their time and money, White writes, adding that a purely economic analysis of a farmer’s decision on a new technology tends to ignore these factors.

Fertilizers as a source of emissions

Total consumption of synthetic fertilizers has increased by 800% since the 1960s and is attracting attention for its GHG emissions. In a study published last November, the small farm advocacy organization GRAIN calculated that emissions from the entire synthetic fertilizer supply chain now account for 2.4% of the global total and 21.5% of annual agricultural emissions.

On a farm, the most noticeable climate impact of fertilizers results from N2O, a greenhouse gas with global warming potential 273 times bigger than carbon dioxide, released by soils that contain too much nitrogen. The gas is naturally produced by soil microbes when there is too much nitrogen for them to metabolize it with 100% efficiency in the “nitrification” and “denitrification” stages of the nitrogen cycle. Applications of synthetic and organic fertilizers cause greater release of N2O when they exceed the capacity of soil microbes, Explain the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.

Some management strategies can reduce excess nitrogen from fertilizer applications and therefore reduce N2O emissions. In addition to the VRT, farmers can reduce fertilizers by using nitrogen stabilizers or adding bio-stimulants to plants, for example. But while “there are an increasing number of tools available to farmers”, choosing the right approach will depend on a farm’s specific circumstances, the land in production and the management systems and controls already in place, McCann said.

Various national climate strategies have set targets for reducing fertilizer use. At the Major Economies Energy and Climate Forum hosted by US President Joe Biden earlier this month, the European Commission, Germany and Norway signed a fertilizer challenge to raise $100 million. dollars ahead of this year’s COP 27 climate summit to boost food security. , reduce agricultural emissions and advance “fertilizer efficiency and alternatives”. The EU is also asking for a 20% off fertilizer, including manure, by 2030. Canada has Position a target date of 2030 to reduce fertilizer applications by 30% below 2020 levels, but increasing fertilizer efficiency rather than imposing reductions on fertilizer use.

“The Government of Canada is focused on achieving this emissions reduction goal through a range of policy measures and approaches, such as working with farmers to encourage the wider adoption of new products and the implementation of beneficial management practices, which will result in both economic benefits for farmers and environmental benefits. benefits to society,” Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) wrote in an email to The mixture.

Canadian food producers will be challenged to meet the target without reducing yields or profitability. And although 20 years of research indicates that it can probably be done, “it won’t be easy”, wrote Thom Weir for the Western Producer.

Price increase

Fertilizer costs have been rising steadily for years, but after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted trade and supply chains, these prices have skyrocketsand could stay high for the next two years. Fertilizers now account for 45% of a farm’s variable input costs, up from 30% in 2020 and 2021, reports World cereals.

The high prices have prompted some experts to speculate that a shift to more fertilizer-efficient and low-emission agriculture is imminent. Recently a comment published in Nature included reducing fertilizer use in its recommendations for reducing energy dependence on Russia, while tackling climate change. Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, said the high prices are “an opportunity for the Biden administration to take a fresh look at organics as substitutes for synthetic fertilizers.”

Amid ‘disastrous forecasts’ of yield losses and growing food insecurity ‘it can seem unforgiving to talk about the good news’, wrote Elizabeth Elkin in Bloomberg. “Yet the 2022 fertilizer shock could end up paying dividends similar to those of the twin oil shocks of the 1970s”, pushing the agricultural sector into an energy-saving dynamic similar to those the oil shock caused in automotive and construction industries.

But high prices alone may not have the intended impact on fertilizer use. An earlier study by Griffin, in partnership with LaVona Traywick of Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, shows that farmers’ decisions to continue with less efficient fertilizer management may actually result from “farmers accurately assessing their relative benefits -costs “. In addition to the additional costs of using the technology – such as more frequent soil testing or operator fees – the intangible human capital costs for education, the ability to learn, and the ability to spend additional effort to a project also increases the cost of adopting a new technology.

“In the decision-making process, farmers tend to focus more on the tangible costs of technology adoption than on perceived benefits such as increased yields, profitability, or knowledge creation,” indicates the search.

Similarly, government funding and programs to encourage farmers to work towards national climate goals need to look beyond tangible financial costs, but they are often insufficient. For example, public funding to compensate farmers for additional soil sampling costs “mitigates the risk to the farmer, but it does not remove the [cost of] human capital needed to make it work,” Griffin said.

Therefore, policies for changing agricultural practices will be more effective if they address the issues through collaboration between farmers, governments and the private sector. Instead of continuing to try to change farming practices through programs that tackle financial barriers, McCann said that focusing on research and development to understand what works for farms and create a base knowledge about the benefits of available practices could lead to better outcomes.

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