April 15, 2005
Canada’s powerful farm lobbies would have you believe that farmers operate under too many rules. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture complains of a “multitude” of unjustified laws and regulations, while the BC Agriculture Council lobbies for a “real reduction of regulation.”
Some farmers demand that they be allowed to pollute. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, for example, has pressed Environment Canada to allow cattle access to waterways – even though it acknowledges that keeping manure away from water supplies is key to preventing E. coli contamination.
More often, farmers agree to clean up their acts, but only if taxpayers foot the bill. In a survey of 2,400 Ontario farmers, 90 percent said that they needed government money to comply with the Nutrient Management Act, the law governing the storage and spreading of manure. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture echoes such demands. Although it acknowledges that the law will help protect our lands and waters, it insists that farmers be compensated for the cost and inconvenience of keeping their manure on their own land. It argues, “All of society stands to benefit and farmers want to see an appropriate level of funding coming from society.”
When farmers demand that they be paid to stop polluting, they are in effect claiming that they have a right to pollute. They are implying that if they stop polluting, they are doing the rest of us a favour. Indeed, the Keystone Agricultural Producers, Manitoba’s largest farm lobby, calls environmental protection “a public service.” We would never tolerate such thinking from any other industry. Environmental protection must not be considered an optional act of good will. It is a responsibility.
In these days of industrial farming, the regulation of agriculture has taken on a new importance. Farms are growing ever larger and more intensive. Factory farms now often house thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of animals. They produce, store, and spread massive amounts of manure. Canada’s Environmental Commissioner points out that the manure generated in Ontario and Quebec alone equals the sewage produced by more than 100 million people.
Manure that is unsafely stored or improperly spread on crop land can contaminate the groundwater on which many rural Canadians rely. We all remember that in Walkerton, E. coli from cattle manure got into the town’s well, killing seven people and sickening 2,300. But few realize that groundwater contamination is very common: In Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, between 21 and 37 percent of the rural wells tested in recent decades have exceeded guidelines for coliform bacteria. Many wells are also contaminated by nitrates, which pose such high risks of blue baby syndrome that Ontario’s Health Ministry has warned against feeding babies formula made with well water.
Manure can also run off farmers’ fields and contaminate streams or lakes. The nitrogen and phosphorus in manure cause algae to grow, reducing the oxygen in the water and killing fish. Nutrients from manure threaten lakes and rivers all across Canada. The problem is particularly alarming in Manitoba, where runoff from fields is contributing to the degradation of Lake Winnipeg – a lake that ecologist David Schindler calls “Canada’s sickest body of water.”
Manure doesn’t just pollute our water. It also pollutes our air. Everyone knows that manure stinks. But not everyone realizes that it can make farm workers and farms’ neighbours sick. Animal waste emits poisonous gasses like ammonia and hydrogen sulphide. Emissions from barns also contain other toxins, bacteria, and fungi that can cause respiratory problems such as bronchitis and asthma. In 2002, the Canadian Medical Association was so concerned with these effects on public health that it called for a moratorium on the expansion of industrial hog farms.
It is time for farm lobbies to accept that farmers have no right to pollute our land, water, and air. We must all obey environmental laws. Please support our work to ensure that controlling pollution from manure is not optional but mandatory.