Farming hazardous to our health

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
December 14, 1999

Subsidies support an industry that is a major polluter

It’s one of Canada’s most polluting industries, yet so sacred a cow that environmental authorities shy away from clamping down on it. It provides one of Canada’s most dangerous work environments – so dangerous that it not only fells its workers but also seriously injures one worker’s child in seven – yet Canada’s occupational health authorities only whisper about the need to regulate it. It hasn’t turned a profit for the country in more than a decade, yet, insisting it’s economically indispensable, it demands continuing subsidies from the successful parts of the Canadian economy. It is the family farm.

Although the family farm conjures up a pretty picture of humans living in harmony with nature, the reality is anything but pretty. Farming today, as it was when homesteaders first deforested so much of our country, is predominantly about conquering and controlling nature. Despite the Western world’s overproduction of food, and despite our farm sector’s miserable economic record – farming has required a cumulative $80-billion in subsidies since 1986, the year the government began systematically counting the costs – Canadians continue to lose wilderness to farmland, whose acreage is increasing at approximately 10 times the rate that suburban sprawl eats up farmland.

To control nature in modern times, most farmers have turned to herbicides, insecticides and other poisons. To counter soil erosion and other costs of depleting the soil’s nutrients, they have turned to intensive fertilization, through both chemicals and manure from increasingly concentrated animal feedlot operations. The result – as tests throughout Canada in the past decade show – is a disturbing degradation of our nation’s rural water supplies: In Nova Scotia, 13% of surveyed wells were so contaminated as to be unfit for drinking, in Ontario 34%, in Saskatchewan 33% and in Alberta 13%. In Alberta’s intensely agricultural areas, 96% of lake samples and 99% of stream samples were unsafe for aquatic life.

The human toll is especially borne by children, according to numerous studies, most recently one released this month by the Ontario College of Family Physicians. It found that the children of farm families – along with children who live near farms – suffer great risks of developmental and immune system damage from heavy pesticide exposure. In Prince Edward Island, largely to satisfy the needs of two new french fry plants, potato fields have sprouted among homes, schools and shops. More than half the schoolchildren now spend their days in classrooms near farm fields, which are sprayed 12 times or more during the four-month potato growing season. The public’s mounting alarm has been exacerbated by a spate of fish kills – the mass poisoning by toxic runoff of the fish, frogs and snakes living in rivers – that occurred nine times in a two-month period last summer. Tourists are also voicing concern. Unlike the profitable tourism industry, however, for every $1 a P.E.I. farmer earns, taxpayers provide $4 in subsidies.

Because intensive farming operations are often inconsistent with the lifestyles our health-conscious society seeks, farmers increasingly confront opposition from broad swaths of society: cottagers and rural residents who face inconvenience and expense in switching to bottled water; sport fisheries, whose lucrative fishing stocks are decimated by farm runoff; organic farmers, who resent subsidies to their chemical-dependent competitors; and municipalities, whose own water supplies are threatened by excesses in farm operations. New York City, to avoid building an expensive and otherwise unnecessary water filtration plant, is paying upstream farmers to curtail their operations.

To overcome public opposition, farmers in most provinces successfully lobbied for laws that give them special status, and deny others their age-old rights to take court action to protect their property against various forms of pollution and other nuisances. Anticipating other challenges, farmers are attempting to beef up these so-called “right to farm laws” even further, by having them override the environmental laws of the land. Far from upholding our cherished traditions, farm lobbies have eroded Canadians’ property rights and our access to the courts, all the while turning the old farm virtue of self-reliance on its head with demands for public assistance.

Only one Western country – New Zealand – has eliminated virtually all farm subsidies. Erosion-prone fragile land – that which never should have been cleared in the first place – has been steadily taken out of farm production, some returning to its natural state and some – an amount approaching two million hectares – planted for commercial forestry. Farmers use fertilizers and other chemicals much more sparingly, and they now emphasize cost control and quality rather than quantity. New Zealand’s largest food processor, Heinz Watties, aggressively increased the number of farms from which it is buying organically grown produce.

New Zealand’s agriculture labour force fell by 10%, but having fewer farmers has not hurt rural societies. Thanks to an improved quality of life and a boom in demand for rural services, the rural economy is reinvigorated and entrepreneurial, and the rural population is up 9%. Nor has having fewer farmers hurt agriculture. The farm sector is the country’s pride, and it is leading New Zealand’s export-led economic recovery.

As in New Zealand, Canada’s economic and environmental health would improve by ending farm subsidies. Though commentators despair at dislocations, the task need not be disruptive, and it need not harm those most vulnerable to change. Fortunately, the problem has largely been solving itself.

In Canada, people have been leaving the farm for decades, and today only 3% of the population remain on farms. This population is disproportionately old – 60% are age 45 or older, nearing retirement, and poor candidates for retraining. Those who wish to finish their careers in farming should continue to receive support. But to prevent the next generation from being trapped, and to give Canadian farming the bright future it deserves – a future the current system so utterly fails to deliver – the farm economy must operate as a free economy.

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