Farm lobbies spread it on too thickly

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
June 13, 2000

Trust us, said a Walkerton lobbyist, and politicians did

Non-farmers — rural residents and city folk alike –are ignorant, or so leading farm groups believe.

Non-farmers don’t understand that no one cares more for the environment than farmers and that modern farming poses no untoward risk to the environment. Non-farmers don’t understand that “normal farm practices” — which provincial right-to-farm legislation allow — include industrial livestock operations, genetic engineering and even biotechnologies not yet imagined. Non-farmers don’t understand that laying manure over land at previously unheard-of levels is also normal, even though rains will inevitably wash these wastes into waterways, where they’ll find their way into groundwater, public wetlands and other people’s lands.

Trust us, said Agricultural Groups Concerned About Resources and the Environment (AGCare), one of Ontario’s leading farm lobbies, to the Ontario government during 1998 hearings into a new right-to-farm act. “I don’t believe [widespread contamination of our water supplies] can happen here because we’ve taken a proactive approach second to nowhere else in the world to address this before it can happen,” asserted Jim Fischer, AGCare’s chairman and a cattle farmer near Walkerton, Ont.

The MLAs did believe him. They also believed other farm groups, who regaled them with stories about ignorant councillors whose bumbling bylaws impeded farmers’ ability to economically bring food to market. The MLAs also believed the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s assertion that farmers’ property rights should allow them to use their lands as they see fit, including in ways that pollute their neighbours’ property, and that landowners who want a farmer to stop polluting their lands should compensate him for his lost revenue. As a result, the Ontario government exempted farmers from municipal bylaws and from common-law rules that preceded the founding of our nation.

To overcome public ignorance, the farm lobbies stress the importance of public education about the importance of the farm economy. The farm groups could stand a lesson or two as well.

Lesson 1 No risk is worth taking without a commensurate reward. The farm economy — particularly in Ontario — has been all risk, no reward. For every dollar in profit that an Ontario farmer earned over the last decade, the rest of us contributed $6 in subsidies, making Ontario the most heavily subsidized province next to Newfoundland. No province boasts a profitable farm economy. Canada’s farm economy as a whole required $3 in subsidies for every dollar of farm profit.

Lesson 2 Some farming operations are highly productive and would thrive without subsidies. The subsidies convert what would otherwise be a smaller but profitable farm sector into a bloated, unprofitable one. Giving farmers the right to pollute by gutting the private property rights of pollution victims has turned what should be a relatively benign industry into a reckless one that excessively spreads E. coli 0157:H7, the deadly bacterium responsible for at least seven deaths and 2,000 illnesses at Walkerton, as well as other less toxic strains of bacteria.

Almost all toxic E. coli comes from farm animals. Ninety percent of Canada’s cattle, sheep and goats carry 0157:H7 at some point in their lives and 30% to 40% carry it at any one time. Farmers then spread infected manure on crop land as well as pasture, contaminating much of the countryside and creating risks especially when the manure — which is otherwise expensive to dispose of — is laid thick on the land. “Most of the E. coli contamination comes from agricultural runoff following a rain,” explains Dr. Carlton Gyles, professor of pathobiology at the University of Guelph, who notes that infections tend to occur in rural regions. Contaminated water then becomes a threat to well water, swimmers, consumers of lettuce washed in contaminated water, and other users of rural water. Small amounts of manure, carefully spread over the land, pose little risk, since soil tends to filter E. coli effectively. Large amounts of manure make careful manure management expensive and therefore unlikely.

The biggest victims of licence-to-pollute laws include responsible farmers, rural residents and cottage owners. The MLAs ignored their presentations, even though — unlike uneconomic farmers — they tend to produce net wealth for society while living lightly on the land. “Land values will fall and properties will become unsaleable [with manure creating] virtual rivers of sewage … through our watercourses and drinking water,” warned the Rural Rights Alliance of Ontario. Explained PROTECT, a group dominated by small farmers affected by industrial farm pollution and alarmed at widespread well contamination and increased beach closings: “In Ashfield township, over half, about 62%, of our tax base is derived from recreational residential ratepayers — they probably take up 1% of the overall land base.”

The answer from the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, which favours lax manure laws but fears water shortages: Cottagers should leave. “Essential needs [such as food production] must be looked after prior to recreational needs,” it testified. The rational answer: Unprofitable and polluting farmers should leave.

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