Last month, a video was posted to Pierre Poilievre's Facebook page accusing the federal government of causing high food prices and driving farmers to ruin. The post on the Tory leader’s page laid the blame on "proposed fertilizer cuts" that would force Canadians into an "irresponsible" reliance on expensive imported food.
The video was misleading. The federal government last year announced it was developing a voluntary plan to reduce nitrogen fertilizer emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. Mandatory restrictions on the chemicals were never in the works; instead, farmers would be encouraged to help out by using more efficient fertilizers or using less by changing their farming techniques.
Nitrogen fertilizers account for about two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions — about the same as aviation. In Canada, they account for about a quarter of agricultural emissions and are the only source of emissions in the sector that is growing.
Within weeks, the 40-second clip posted on Poilievre’s page was viewed over 35,000 times and received more than 7,500 interactions, making it among the most popular posts about fertilizer on the platform this year. Interactions are a metric used by Facebook parent company Meta that combines a post's likes, comments and shares.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories about Canada’s fertilizer reduction strategy have run rampant online, since the release of a doomsday report last year by Canada’s $23-billion fertilizer industry. The report claims the plan will cost farmers $48 billion by 2030 and slash yields of our major crops. Since then, conservative politicians and advocacy groups linked to Canada's far-right and fossil fuel lobby, have been posting erroneous information that ranges from greenwashing to flat-out disinformation about the government fertilizer plan, a Canada's National Observer investigation has found.
Nitrogen fertilizers are primarily made from natural gas. As the world tries to reduce gas production and consumption, the chemicals are poised to become increasingly important to the survival of gas companies.
Canada's National Observer looked at Facebook posts containing the word "fertilizer" posted by Canada-based Facebook pages over the past year using Meta's proprietary search engine Crowdtangle, which captures most of the more than 1,000 posts. Of the 120 that garnered the most interactions, 64 per cent were posted by conservative politicians or political parties, right-wing populist groups and pro-fossil fuel groups about the federal fertilizer emissions reduction plan.
Poilievre tops the list of 20 politicians and political parties who posted on the issue, garnering nine of the top 120 posts. Those messages framed the federal emissions reduction plan as an effort to restrict fertilizer use and an attack on farmers that would increase the cost of food for Canadians.
Conservative politicians and advocacy groups linked to Canada's far-right and fossil fuel lobby have been posting erroneous information about the federal government's fertilizer plan, a @NatObserver investigation reveals. #cdnpoli
The federal government has not proposed restrictions on fertilizer use and this summer signed a $2.5-billion deal with the provinces to subsidize Canadian farmers. The price of food is primarily shaped by global forces, meaning associated soaring food prices are largely out of Canadian control.
Some comments by Conservatives went even further. Manitoba MP Dan Mazier’s Facebook page shared a video claiming the fertilizer plan was an "attack on farmers" that would "kill a foundational sector like agriculture" after first "shutting down our oil and gas industry." The federal government continues to offer generous subsidies to farmers and the oil and gas industry.
Canada's National Observer did not receive a response to a request for comment from Poilievre's office by deadline. A spokesperson for Mazier did not address specific questions about the MP's claims about the plan.
Thirty of the top-performing posts were made by right-wing populist groups or media outlets, many with a track record of attacking the Trudeau government. This list includes groups like Ontario Proud, which holds itself out as a grassroots community group but operates anonymously and is part of a family of similar pages linked to conservative operative Jeff Ballingall and right-wing media outlet True North.
For instance, on Aug. 27, a post by the group Alberta Proud warned the federal government to "keep your hands off our farmers" by backing off its "demand" that they reduce fertilizer emissions and use, and highlighted a cartoon repeating a conspiracy theory that the plan is a plot to make people eat crickets and starve them into submission.
Alberta Proud describes itself as "a group of citizens concerned about Alberta's future within Canada" but does not publicly list its members or staff.
The post received over 8,000 interactions, including about 3,200 shares.
Pro-fossil fuel groups received the highest number of interactions. Take an Aug. 15 post by Canada Action, a group that bills itself as an advocate for Canada's natural resource industries. It does not publicly list its members or staff. The post asked followers to support farmers by signing a petition against the fertilizer emissions reduction plan. It received nearly 17,000 interactions.
The confluence of these groups over the fertilizer emissions reduction plan doesn't surprise Simon Fraser University communications professor Shane Gunster, who studies online links between right-wing groups, politicians and natural resource industry lobbies.
"Clearly there are a cluster of groups — fossil fuel industry supporter groups, right populist groups, right-wing politicians, etc. — that have latched on to this issue as an effective one to whip up outrage against Trudeau and the federal government," he wrote in an email.
Farmers had largely been overlooked by these right-wing groups until recently, but Gunster said their sudden focus on fertilizers suggests they think food-related issues can generate more support for their broader political goals than less publicly "appealing" industries like mining or oil and gas.
Right-wing populism works by politicians finding groups that are "allegedly victimized by those in power" and claiming to stand up for them. Politicians spreading inaccurate information about the federal fertilizer plan then saying they will "stand up for farmers" against it is "emblematic" of this process, Gunster wrote.
Their message is amplified further by the tight links between the different groups. He pointed, for instance, to a July 27 post where Poilievre's Facebook page posted the link to a Toronto Sun column slamming the federal plan. The piece was written by Anthony Furey, a columnist for the paper who also writes for True North.
"This is exactly how the polarizing echo-chambers that now dominate our media and public sphere are built and sustained, pulling audiences into right-wing networks in which the merchants of fake populism in media and politics reinforce each other’s appeal," Gunster said.
Groups and politicians turning their focus onto the proposed fertilizer emissions reduction plan comes as no surprise to Darrin Qualman, the National Farmers Union director of climate crisis policy. For decades, right-wing politicians have promised farmers that fewer regulatory measures would boost their incomes. While many of those changes have been implemented by conservative, market-friendly governments, they haven't fixed problems like farm debt, high land prices and widespread consolidation.
"The problem for right-wing candidates… is that after decades of blaming farm problems on gov’t agencies and regulations, so little of that policy and infrastructure is left that they are now having a hard time finding agricultural issues to run on — little to whip up rural support," Qualman explained via email.
Thus the push by politicians like Poilievre and right-wing groups aligned with his message to frame the government's voluntary emissions reduction plan as a mandatory cut in fertilizer use that will harm farm incomes and food security.
"Farmers are being pushed to have a false fight about fertilizer because those on the right have few agricultural issues or ideas to talk about," he said.