March 10, 2005
Traffic chaos again disrupted Toronto yesterday as convoys of tractors – in the second such demonstration in as many weeks – converged on Queen’s Park to demand more privileges for farmers. Last week, 8,000 farmers organized by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture lined up at the legislative trough for cash. Yesterday’s protesters, led by the Lanark Landowners’ Association, demanded a different kind of subsidy: freedom from accountability.
Armed with the slogan, "This is our land. Back off government," yesterday’s protesters complained about a number of "intolerable" laws restricting farmers. Heading their list was Ontario’s Nutrient Management Act, which, among other things, is intended to prevent farm manure from polluting the streams and lands of neighbours. They were also "fed up" with the Environmental Protection Act, fisheries regulations "that protect minnows more than people and harm your farm," and other regulations that have "broken the back of our family farms."
Such acts, the landowners believe, are "the result of our lost property rights." And in a sense they are right: The need to regulate the environmental impacts of farming does indeed grow out of the loss of property rights. But it isn’t farmers who have lost their rights. It is those living downwind and downstream from farms – those living with the pollution that farmers create.
Until 1988, common-law property rights protected Ontario’s citizens from polluting farms. Farmers’ neighbours could obtain court injunctions against practices that created unreasonable odours, dust, noise or other harmful nuisances. The system effectively controlled pollution and restrained the unsustainable intensification of agriculture – too effectively for the provincial government, which wanted to promote agriculture at all costs.
In 1988, Ontario’s Liberal government severely curtailed the property rights of those living near farms. It proclaimed the Farm Practices Protection Act, specifying that as long as a farmer did not violate one of several statutes, he would not be liable in nuisance for any odour, noise, or dust resulting from a normal farm practice.
A decade later, responding to pressure from a number of agricultural groups, Mike Harris’s Conservatives further undermined the property rights of farmers’ neighbours. The Farming and Food Production Protection Act expanded the list of protected disturbances to include flies, light, smoke and vibrations. It also excused farmers from complying with municipal bylaws that restrict normal farm practices.
Such laws, by now common to all provinces, are generally referred to as "right-to-farm" laws. But many farmers have confused their right to farm with a right to pollute. Believing that they have acquired the latter, farmers now demand compensation for measures taken to reduce pollution. At last week’s protest, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, complaining of "a crushing regulatory burden," called on the government to delay the Nutrient Management Act pending "realistic" funding.
Although the Lanark Landowners Association has not commented on right-to-farm laws, it should find them abhorrent. The association styles itself as a fierce promoter of property rights, calling on the federal government to enshrine them in the constitution, calling the right to use and enjoy property "the basis of freedom and democracy," and admitting that "this right does not supercede or allow an individual to cause harm or injury to another." But its demands to be free from environmental regulation do not square with the traditional meaning of property rights – the meaning that farmers were subject to for the centuries preceding 1988.
When farmers start shouting about property rights, it’s hard not to think that they have embraced these principles rather selectively. As one farmer and Lanark Landowners’ Association member chuckled to the Toronto Star last year, "We don’t mind government interference sometimes. We just think they should interfere when we want them to and get out when we want them to."
If these self-styled rural revolutionaries truly want to be seen as "defending and fighting for the rights and interests of private landowners and their property," they should call on the provincial government to repeal the right-to-farm act that has subsidized polluting farm practices and destroyed rural residents’ rights to a clean and healthy environment. Either do that or back off, farmers. And keep your manure off your neighbours’ property.