Canada is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of food. The country has about 230,000 farms, most of which use fertilizers. The Canadian fertilizer industry contributes nearly $12 billion annually to the Canadian economy and employs nearly 12,000 Canadians.
As the world population increases the natural resources on which agriculture relies are becoming constrained. The planet has a limited amount of arable land available for food production. Limited arable land is not the only challenge facing the agriculture industry – other natural resources such as irrigation water are also limited and climate change adds further pressure on agricultural resources. Through sustainable actions, we can protect our soil, water and air for society, enhance the productivity and profitability of our farm customers, and ensure the future of our industry. Agricultural sustainability is all about best management practices that will allow farmers to maximize economic yields and achieve profitable production year after year, while ensuring that their farm operations do not negatively affect the environment.
One way to improve on farm sustainability is by implementing the Nitrous Oxide Emission Reduction Protocol, also referred to as NERP. This system helps to reduce the farm’s greenhouse gas output by reducing emissions of nitrous oxide. The NERP approach to nitrous oxide management has been developed in Canada, but can be adapted to most crop production systems. This universality means that broadscale NERP adoption could have a global impact on GHG emissions from agricultural production.
NERP is based on the concept that improving nitrogen management practices will increase nitrogen use efficiency. More N in the crop means less ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide. The heart of the NERP program is the 4R Nutrient Stewardship system, which is applying the Right Source @Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place®. The 4R system uses an integrated system of BMPs to improve nutrient management within a framework, of environmental, social and economic goals for the farm.
“4R nutrient stewardship is an innovative program that tells you what to do, but it doesn’t tell you how to do it. 4R is applicable to all nutrients, but NERP is only applicable to nitrogen,” explains Rob Janzen, one of the co-developers of the NERP protocol. “NERP focuses on providing 4R based strategies and practices that will enhance yield and increase nitrogen use efficiency and thereby increasing profits and enhancing environmental quality. So NERP is sort of the how to implement the what of 4R’s”.
“NERP practices focus on increasing nitrogen use efficiency – so getting the nitrogen that is in the soil into the crop. We achieve that by minimizing any of the soluble nitrogen hanging around in the soil,” says Janzen. “N20 is an intermediate product that is created when nitrogen is transformed into the soil. If we minimize the time that that nitrogen is free in the soil, we will minimize the opportunity for generation of N20.”
The main goal of NERP is to generate carbon offsets. A carbon credit, or offset, is described as “an instrument that allows a farmer who has reduced their GHG emissions to trade or sell that reduction to a GHG emitter who wants to reduce their carbon footprint”, explained Dan Heaney, who has recently produced an online training program for NERP.
NERP provides farmers a systematic way to increase yield per unit of nitrogen and manage their fertilizer costs. It also shows them what information and documentation they need to collect to capture their efficiency improvements as carbon credits. NERP’s data requirements are for the most part based on information leading edge producers already collect and will help them make the cost benefit analysis that they need to establish whether a management practice is profitable or not.
“NERP works on a cropping cycle – so the time to get it in place is before the crop goes in the ground,” says Heaney. “You can start the planning, though, at any time of year. You do need to develop a base line from your historic data for yield and nitrogen use. The program doesn’t start on the farm until a 4R Nitrogen Stewardship Plan signed off by an Accredited Professional Advisor (APA) is in place, so you want to start the process well before the seed goes in the ground.
Heaney summarizes the NERP process as series of steps:
- First the producer working with his APA develops a set of sustainability goals for the farm.
- Then the producer or their APA uses the estimating protocols in the National Inventory Protocol to estimate baseline nitrous oxide emissions for each crop on their farm.
- The next step is to document the best management practices or 4R BMP’s that they are or will be using to improve nitrogen management on the farm.
- The goals, baseline calculations and BMPs are put together in 4R nutrient stewardship plan, which is then signed off by their APA.
- The next step is to implement the project – the NERP project comes into effect only after the 4R Plan has been signed of and implemented, there is no retroactivity.
- At the end of each crop cycle, the farmer or his APA calculates the nitrous oxide emissions using the same protocol used for the baseline.
- The project emissions are multiplied by a reduction coefficient and subtracted from the baseline to calculate the carbon credits generated for each crop on the farm.
Farmers hoping to implement the NERP should begin by understanding what the protocol is all about. In the Fall of 2011, CFI launched a NERP training module on their new eLearning platform, GrowZone. “Our goal is provide formal training, and to be seen as a guide, an informer, and a reference to you and all your Canadian fertilizer needs,” says Clyde Graham, Vice President of the Canadian Fertilizer Institute.
The NERP training consists of a number of interactive modules and a certification exam. If you wish to learn more about CFI’s GrowZone initiative, or to take the NERP online training, we invite you to log on to http://growzone.cfi.ca/en/. Anyone can register and take the course free-of-charge. There is, however, a fee to take the accreditation exam and receive an APA certificate.
Course developer Heaney stresses that the on-line training is suitable for a wide audience, “Although, the modules focus on the knowledge required by those wishing to become accredited professional advisors. It should also be of interest to farmers, students, and anyone else wanting to learn about NERP. The current version of the NERP training uses examples from Western Canadian crop production that are pertinent to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba but the concepts and calculations are universal and apply to cropping systems from coast to coast.”
At present, the NERP protocol has been implemented by the province of Alberta as part of their provincial offset trading program. The protocol is being currently reviewed by a number of other jurisdictions including Saskatchewan and Ontario.