Farmers Are Fighting Over Fertilizer As Agriculture's Impact on the Environment Becomes Undeniable

Nitrous oxide is a major greenhouse gas and overuse of fertilizers contribute to it.

farmer protest in netherlands
Farmers drive on the highway en route to a protest action against nitrogen policy .

BSR Agency / Getty Images

In the Netherlands, farmers are blocking highways and dumping manure in front of politicians' homes. In Canada, the convoys are blocking traffic again and doing slow rolls while waving Dutch flags. In the U.S., former President Donald Trump said in a speech: “In our movement, we stand against the climate fanatics. We stand with the peaceful Dutch farmers who are bravely fighting for their freedom. It’s horrible what’s happening.” He also noted: “They want to get rid of the cattle. Because of what it does to the globe. Half of the cattle they want out. You’ll be next."

It's ostensibly all about fertilizer. The Dutch government wants to reduce nitrogen emissions from animal farming and meet 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 governments of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta are "disappointed in the federal target for fertilizer emissions reduction."

"We're really concerned with this arbitrary goal," Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture David Marit said. "The Trudeau government has apparently moved on from their attack on the oil and gas industry and set their sights on Saskatchewan farmers."

Fertilizer Emissions
Nitrogen Emissions from synthetic fertilizers.

Agriculture Canada

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

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

When nitrogen fertilizer is applied to soil, some is taken up by the plants, but according to Carbon Brief, much of it leaches out of soil or is washed into rivers or other bodies of water, feeding algae and releasing methane. "A third portion is lost to the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times as powerful as CO2. Microbes in the soil can break down the nitrogen fertilizers applied to a field to produce nitrous oxide."

The Canadian complainers say fertilizer cutbacks will lead to lower food production and loss of income. Everybody is quoting a report from Fertilizer Canada—"an industry association representing Canadian manufacturers, wholesalers and retail distributors of nitrogen, phosphate and potash fertilizers"—which is far from an unbiased source. The report says "a focus on an absolute emissions reduction, rather than an intensity-based target, is misplaced and will likely cause severe economic harm."

According to the Toronto Sun:

"In Canada, the Trudeau government is moving forward with a plan to reduce emissions from fertilizer by 30% to help meet Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions targets. For most farmers, that means reducing fertilizer usage by 30%, which means lower crop yields, lower income for farm families and higher prices for families at the grocery store."

That isn't necessarily so. Even Fertilizer Canada says you can reduce emissions without reducing yields by using the 4R program:

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

It claims: "A focus on absolute emissions is short-sighted and threatens the agricultural community, and the provincial economies that rely on them. We cannot meet our export or growth targets with this mindset. Focusing on emissions intensity will deliver outcomes that are better 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 sustainable use of fertilizer in crop production and can reduce GHG emissions." But it is not budging from its emissions cap in favor of emissions intensity.

The problem with emissions intensity reductions is they allow the overall emissions to grow, even if the emissions per barrel drop, and it is the country's overall emissions that have to be reduced. The idea of reducing emissions intensity is beloved of business and industry because they can keep expanding. As noted by the Columbia Center on Sustainable Development:

"Intensity-based decarbonization goals are controversial, as they do not guarantee absolute emissions reductions. If a company’s emissions intensity decreases, but its production volume increases at a greater rate, its annual GHG emissions may still increase. Accordingly, absolute targets are preferable: a company that sets and achieves an absolute emissions target will shrink its carbon footprint, even if its production increases."
Share of cereals allocated to animal feed

Our World in Data

The farmers say that doesn't matter because the world needs more food, but a lot of those crops are used to feed animals, not people. In Canada, it is over 80%. As environmental scientist Mark Sutton told Carbon Brief, much depends on what we eat for dinner: “Had we not been eating high-meat diets, the world could have clearly fed more people with less fertilizer.” 

This brings us back to the Netherlands, where it is mostly about meat. Where Canadians have wide-open spaces, according to Sentient Media in the Netherlands, "The country has the highest density of farmed animals in Europe and, until this summer, was exempt from EU rules limiting the amount of manure that farmers can spread on the land. In 2021, there were 3.8 million cows, 11 million pigs, and almost 100 million chickens. Because of the huge amounts of feces and urine these animals produce, intensive animal farms account 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 show on Fox News where the Dutch government is accused of "stealing Dutch farmland 'under the guise' of a fabricated environmental crisis, but actually as part of a communist plot to transform Holland's countryside into mass housing for immigrants and to enact something called the 'Great Reset.'"  In Canada, support of the Dutch has become the new cause celebre for the "truckers convoy," also beloved of Carlson. Some right-wing sites are claiming that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is emulating Sri Lanka, which cut off 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 No One's Talking About." Now that it has become so political, it's likely we will be hearing and talking about it a whole lot more.

View Article Sources
  1. "Greenhouse Gas Emissions." Government of Canada.

  2. "Share of Cereals Allocated to Animal Feed, 2017." Our World in Data.