May 7, 2002
"Treat farming like any other industry and clean it up, inquiry urged." So read the headline of a Toronto Star article about one of our presentations to the Walkerton Inquiry. Our approach was considered newsworthy, but it shouldn’t have been. After all, isn’t it just common sense that we need to start cracking down on pollution from farms?
A distressing array of parties doesn’t seem to think so. After bacteria from cow manure entered the Walkerton water system and killed seven people, the Ontario government, agricultural organizations, community groups, and even some environmental groups leapt to the defence of the farm responsible for the contamination.
Both the government of Ontario and the Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition approvingly noted that the farm followed government-sanctioned practices. The Walkerton Community Foundation praised the farmer’s exemplary conduct, arguing that he was "doing what he was entitled to do." Even the Sierra Club called the farmer "a responsible steward of the land." Many of the farm’s defenders confused normal farm practices with safe farm practices, concluding that since the polluting practices were normal they must have been acceptable.
But normal practices are no longer good enough. Farming, as it is now too often practised on small and large farms alike, threatens both human health and the environment. Of particular concern are the organisms found in manure – organisms that rain can wash into aquifers and streams. Between 30 and 40 percent of Canada’s cows carry a deadly strain of E. coli at any one time, and 90 percent of them will carry it at some point in their lives. Cows can also harbour cryptosporidium, the parasite that sickened 8,000 people in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, last year.
Cattle farms are not the only culprits. Internal federal documents ?long kept under wraps while the government has promoted large-scale farming – indicate that factory hog farms cause air and water pollution and pose significant health hazards. Of course, hog farms are also notorious for their intense odours. The fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides commonly used in crop production pose other threats to the environment as well. Phosphorus stimulates the growth of weeds and algae in lakes and rivers; bacteria decomposing these plants consume oxygen in the water, killing fish. Other concerns include noise, dust, and erosion.
Solutions to many of these problems are available. But they cost money, and as things stand, farmers don’t have sufficient incentives to spend that money. Many farmers will not compost their manure, construct wetlands or buffer strips, build sewage treatment plants, change their animals’ diets, employ safe alternatives to pesticides, or install odour-filtration systems if they can follow normal practices – if they can, in other words, maintain the status quo – with impunity.
Despite the damage they often cause, farms enjoy special status under the law. Environmental laws exempt many polluting farming activities. Further indemnities exist under so-called "right to farm" laws – laws protecting farmers from legal challenges as long as they use normal practices. Such laws deprive farmers’ neighbours of the right to sue when they have been harmed. They have permitted farming activities that have threatened water supplies and made neighbours physically ill. They have also led to ever-larger farms that don’t need to concern themselves with the environmental impacts of their operations.
Farms don’t just enjoy legal protection. They also enjoy economic protection, through generous subsidies. Canadian farms have received more than $80 billion in subsidies since 1986. Between 1991 and 2000, Canadian agriculture required $3.76 in subsidies for every dollar farmers earned. Overwhelmingly, these economic subsidies support large-scale operations while discriminating against responsible small-scale farms, including organic farms, the fastest growing area in agriculture. Unlike large-scale polluting farms, small-scale family farms can be economically viable without subsidies and without threatening our health and that of the environment.
Legal exemptions and subsidies, common across the country, are abominations. No farm should have the right to pollute, and no farm’s polluting practices should be subsidized. If you agree, and want a farm economy we can be proud of, please support our efforts. With your support, we can restore the family farm to economic and environmental sustainability.