October 9, 2007
“Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.” That warning, issued by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, couldn’t be clearer. Farmers around the globe are polluting the air, degrading the land, and fouling the water on a “massive scale,” the FOA charged. “Urgent action is required to remedy the situation.”
Here in Canada, our agricultural industry is one of our worst polluters. The enormous volume of manure produced by livestock in ever larger and more intensive factory farm operations and the fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics they use threaten human health and the natural environment.
And yet, our government regulators are paying little heed. Rather than curbing polluting farm practices – the way we curb pollution from other industries – regulators are shoring up the agricultural industry with billions in subsidies and even giving it what amounts to a right to pollute. This is the subject of my new book, Greener Pastures: Decentralizing the Regulation of Agricultural Pollution, published by the University of Toronto’s Centre for Public Management.
Greener Pastures documents the ways in which the regulation of agriculture has resulted in environmental harm. The book focuses on the so-called “right-to-farm” laws that every province has passed in recent decades. The laws vary from province to province, but generally they exempt farmers from legal liability for the nuisances they create.
Right-to-farm laws have created a new standard by which to measure pollution: the standard of “normal.” If a farming practice is “normal,” it is deemed acceptable. The director of conflict resolution for British Columbia’s Farm Industry Review Board explains what this means: “it’s basically up to the industry to determine what the standard is … If a farmer is doing what other farmers do, he or she is okay.”
Equating what is “normal” with what is acceptable has had an insidious effect on our thinking about farming. Many environmental protection laws and planning laws have been re-written to protect “normal” farming practices – even if they are polluting. This must change. We must start holding farmers accountable for the harm they do, whether or not their practices are “normal.”
In Greener Pastures, I argue that the best way to do this is to empower the people who are most directly affected by farms – their neighbours and their communities. Before the passage of right-to-farm laws, those harmed by farms had the legal means to protect themselves. We must restore to these people the means to control agriculture’s adverse impacts, in effect making each one a potential regulator.
We must also strengthen communities, so that they can control damaging land uses through zoning and planning. Local environmental impacts should be addressed locally, and broader impacts should be regulated at higher levels.
Environment Probe has been working to control agricultural pollution for the last seven years – ever since bacteria from cow manure contaminated Walkerton’s water, killing seven people and sickening more than 2,300 others. We have participated in the Walkerton Inquiry, written newspaper articles, appeared on radio programs, and spoken at conferences. Now, with the release of Greener Pastures, we have an opportunity to spread the message far and wide: A new approach to regulation is required in order to create a new agricultural industry – one meeting standards that are not merely “normal” but are truly sustainable.