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Dutch farmer protests and what's happening in Canada, explained

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The ongoing protests in the Netherlands, by farmers opposed to their government’s plan to slash nitrogen oxide emissions by 50 per cent by 2030, have drawn attention to Canadian farmers’ concerns over an emissions reduction target set by the Canadian government.

Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, Marie-Claude Bibeau, announced last year the Liberals want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with fertilizers by 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030.

Some farmers and members of the agriculture industry say it’s extremely difficult to reduce emissions beyond current levels without cutting inputs, because Canadian farmers are already highly efficient and judicious with their fertilizer use.

They say less fertilizer use could also lead to less product output, depending on the method farmers use to reduce their inputs. This, at a time when there is already added pressure on Canadian producers to fill gaps in the grain market caused by the war in Ukraine.

But the Canadian government is adamant the goal is to cut emissions, not fertilizer use, and it’s in consultations with stakeholders until the end of August to discuss how to hit the target. And scientists say hitting the government’s target — without slashing fertilizer use — is entirely possible.

“Our estimates are that this is feasible,” said Claudia Wagner Riddle, a professor at the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences.

Farmers in the Netherlands have been lining the streets with tractors and other equipment, dumping manure, tires and garbage on the roads, and burning hay bales nearby, for weeks to protest against their government’s plan to cut nitrogen emissions in the agriculture industry in half by 2030. The farmers say that could cost them their farms and their livelihoods.

In Canada, protesters in solidarity with Dutch farmers held “slow roll” demonstrations in cities across the country on July 23, including in many parts of the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. Hundreds of people took part in about a dozen protests, lining up trucks and tractors, brandishing signs that read “freedom,” “stand with farmers,” and “world leaders agenda = starvation,” while waving Dutch and Canadian flags.

Many of those protests were spearheaded by Freedom Fighters Canada, a group that was heavily involved with the trucker convoy protest in Ottawa in February, with members and organizers leading marches during that time.

Several protesters in Canada drew parallels between the policies set out by the Dutch government and Ottawa’s emissions-reduction target of 30 per cent. Protesters say they’re worried Canadian farmers could also lose their livelihoods and end up holding mass protests like their European counterparts.

Protesters in Saskatchewan told CTV Regina they wanted to send the message to the Canadian government that implementing similar policies here is unacceptable.

But the policies set out by the Dutch government and the Canadian government are fundamentally different.

While the Dutch government’s target is to reduce emissions from the agriculture industry overall by 50 per cent by 2030, the Canadian government is aiming for a 30 per cent reduction in emissions from fertilizer specifically, also by 2030.

Not only are the targets different, so are the two governments’ plans to achieve their goals.

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE NETHERLANDS

In the Netherlands, the goal is to make what the government’s calling an “unavoidable transition” in its agriculture industry, and move toward circular agriculture by 2030, which will ultimately involve using minimal external inputs and closing nutrient loops, among other practices. The intent is to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, and lessen the agriculture industry’s environmental impact.

The Dutch government’s plan also includes a target to halve agriculture industry emissions from nitrogen oxide and ammonia overall, from greenhouse gases to groundwater leeching, methane, and other waste from livestock.

The main generators of excess nitrogen in Dutch agriculture are livestock farmers, so the government’s targets will hit them hardest, explained Alfons Weersink, a faculty member in the department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph.

Many farmers there say they could be forced to reduce or sell off their livestock to reach the government’s goals.

“It’s very immediate, this is happening now, and that can explain the level of protests, that livelihoods are being threatened, and people are willing to take to the streets to protect their livelihoods,” Weersink told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Aug. 4.

But the reduction targets are not equally applied across the board. Some areas need to make bigger cuts, in some places reducing emissions by more than 75 per cent, and when the Dutch government released maps indicating which regions had to make reductions by what percentage, in many cases farmers said the only way to hit the targets is by downsizing or shutting down completely.

According to the Dutch government, farmers have three options: adapt, relocate, or shut down.

“It’s a hard target, and they’re going to enforce these through reductions in largely livestock inventory,” Weersink said.

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN CANADA

Here in Canada, it’s crop producers who are concerned.

“There's not much room for farmers to go before they start losing productivity and before their yields are affected, because of course you need fertilizer to maximize your yields,” said Karen Proud, the head of Fertilizer Canada, which represents manufacturers, importers, distributors and retailers of fertilizer products, in an interview with CTVNews.ca last month.

But Weersink said it is “not a one-to-one relationship,” and “there are a number of means of reducing emissions without cutting back on fertilizer use significantly.”

Proud said the biggest concern is that the Canadian government set the 30 per cent target for emissions reduction without consultation with industry experts and stakeholders, but those consultations are now underway and Proud said she’s “cautiously optimistic” the federal government is listening to industry.

Cameron Newbigging, a spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca on July 29 that the government’s target of 30 per cent “was established based on available scientific research and internal analysis,” taking into consideration ways to optimize fertilizer use while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

While the Canadian government is in consultations with stakeholders, the Dutch government has given provincial authorities a year to figure out how they’ll make the mandatory cuts.

“[In Canada] it’s voluntary, and there are incentives for [farmers] to adopt these practices, so there are carrots that are being used, in contrast to the Netherlands, where it’s stick, it’s like ‘you have to do this’,” Weersink said.

Kenton Possberg, who farms northeast of Humboldt, Sask., and is a director with the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said he’s “frustrated,” and “struggling to understand” the government’s “pretty aggressive strategy.”

“We're trying to maximize output and we are just barely keeping up with what the world requires on an annual basis,” he told CTVNews.ca last month. “It seems like the climate crisis is trumping the food crisis that we were discussing last decade, and just wondering which direction we're going to be going next.”

Possberg said he doubts that the situation in Canada will escalate to producers holding mass protests like those in the Netherlands.

“But the farming sector in general is just tired of being vilified as the enemy,” he said. “We’re an easy target. But, but why aren't we a partner, instead of the enemy? Instead of ‘you do this, you do that’, the conversation should be ‘how are we going to come together and develop something?’”

Proud said the Canadian and Dutch contexts are very different at this stage, largely because while Canadian producers do take targets set by the government very seriously, they’re not currently mandatory, and the government is still in talks with industry experts.

“My hope, and I am cautiously optimistic at this stage, is that we will see the government sort of revising its position on some aspects of this path,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with putting out ambitious targets … I think the real problem is that these targets get out there without the proper analysis as to how you would achieve it and what the impact would be.”

Some premiers, including Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, have been very outspoken against the government’s emissions reduction target.

Conservative agriculture critic John Barlow said reducing emissions and reducing fertilizer use are one and the same, and he doesn’t believe farmers can do one without the other.

With files from The Associated Press

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