May 5, 2004
Should hog farmers be allowed to create odours so foul that they make neighbours physically ill? Should cattle farmers who follow manure-management rules be exempt from local bylaws limiting their size and density? Should vegetable farmers be allowed to send clouds of black dust across neighbouring lands, or awaken neighbours throughout the night with cannon explosions designed to scare away wildlife? How much pollution is “necessary” or “acceptable,” and who should decide?
These are some of the questions that we at Environment Probe are currently grappling with. Our research has taught us that the environment will be best protected when those directly affected by an activity have the power to control it. Under this principle, those living downwind or downstream of a farm have the right to insist on clean air and clean water, and thus can veto harmful farm practices.
For centuries, the world worked this way. But powerful agri-business lobbies have persuaded politicians to change our traditional laws, making farmers’ neighbours powerless to protect themselves and their environment. They have pushed for “right-to-farm” laws protecting many offensive practices from lawsuits by individuals who have been adversely affected. Such laws permit a host of activities that were previously forbidden. They often override municipalities’ authority to limit the size or nature of farms within their boundaries. And they often give decision-making authority to boards dominated by agricultural interests.
Tragically, these laws have not translated into more sustainable agricultural practices. Indeed, they have often had the effect of promoting rather than controlling harmful activities. Small farmers and organic farmers are among the losers in this new world of agriculture dominated by large-scale operations.
Recently, several provinces, fearing that municipalities, if left to their own devices, would discourage farming ?have introduced province-wide regulations that further remove decisions from local hands. As explained by our friend and fellow campaigner, Bobby Kennedy, shortly after Alberta centralized the approval of factory farms, regulators make it too easy for unpopular hog operators to gain approval. “This is the first thing they do when.they go into a new area,” Kennedy explained. “They make sure local people cannot object…. This is one-stop shopping for polluters.” He concluded, “The only way to control this industry is local control, and local control has now been removed from the municipalities in Alberta.”
Without a doubt, we need provincial or federal regulation to deal with some pollutants and practices. But these regulations must not come at the expense of individuals, communities, and those sharing watersheds — the very people who are in the best position to monitor environmental effects and who have the strongest incentives to ensure that practices are sustainable.
As farms increase in size and intensity, as they produce greater volumes of manure and use greater quantities of chemicals, it is more important than ever to ensure effective and vigilant regulation. In this we need your help.
We are now in the midst of a major study that analyzes how the agricultural industry has become bigger but not necessarily better, and how best to regulate its harmful effects on our air and water. When it’s completed, we will bring this study to the attention of governments, the media, and concerned citizens like you, to spur a debate about the best direction for society. Please support our efforts to empower individuals and communities. Few issues are more important to the health of the country, yet few issues have been so badly neglected.