From ‘polluter pays’ to ‘polluter gets’

Elizabeth Brubaker
Financial Post
May 25, 2009

"What does Environment Probe gain by this display of disunity?" demanded one farmer. His anger, voiced in a letter to the Ontario Farmer newspaper, was directed at our public rebuke of the new Ontario ALUS Alliance, a coalition pushing for a provincially funded program that would pay farmers to provide environmentally friendly "alternative land use services." His organization, a local of the National Farmers Union of Ontario, fears that a debate over the program’s merits could jeopardize its public funding.

The Farmers Union is by no means the only organization wishing to muffle public debate about ALUS. After Ontario Farmer published our critique last month, I received a call from the chair of an ALUS pilot project and a founder of the new alliance. Worried that Environment Probe’s name carries weight with the politicians who read the paper, he invited the organization to join the alliance, despite our policy differences. The alliance, he insisted, has "an open tent."

Alas, the term alternative land use services is itself an all-too-open tent. It includes a wide variety of environmental benefits — water filtration, carbon storage and wildlife habitat, to name but a few — that properly managed farms provide. But ALUS fails to distinguish between providing an environmental benefit and correcting an environmental harm. While it may make sense to pay a farmer to provide waterfowl habitat or green space, it does not make sense to pay a farmer not to pollute. A farmer should keep manure from his cattle and silt from his fields out of local streams without subsidies from provincial taxpayers.

ALUS supporters reject this argument. In an upcoming edition of one rural Ontario newspaper, a columnist will chide me for lacking a clear picture of the situation in which farmers find themselves. He will defend farmers on the grounds that they have allowed their cattle to wade — and presumably defecate — in streams for generations, that widespread opposition to this polluting practice is relatively recent and that farmers currently face serious economic challenges.

The letter writer from the Farmers Union likewise maintained that farmers "really do want to be good stewards" but cannot afford to improve their practices. Another Farmers Union official made a similar point in the Owen Sound Sun Times. "Farm income has been so low for so long," he wrote. "Spending money that does not increase farm income is an unlikely occurrence." He did not explain why farmers should have any choice as to whether they spend money to prevent pollution.

Other ALUS supporters try to deny that the program pays farmers not to pollute. The senior director of conservation and education at Ontario Nature, an ardent supporter of the ALUS Alliance, called Environment Probe’s assertion "inaccurate and potentially very damaging." Her attempt to distinguish ALUS’s practice of giving farmers financial incentives to provide clean water from paying farmers not to pollute was quite muddy. But her conclusion was clear: "We should no longer expect farmers to shoulder the financial burden of providing these benefits to society."

On the contrary, environmentalists and taxpayers alike should certainly expect farmers to shoulder the financial burden of remedying environmental problems that they themselves have created. Paying farmers not to pollute defies a widely accepted economic principle at the heart of environmental sustainability — the need to internalize the costs of pollution, or make pollution prevention part of the cost of farming. It replaces "polluter pays" with "polluter gets." Paying farmers not to pollute also makes a mockery of our environmental laws, both ancient and modern. Under these laws, pollution is met not with rewards but with penalties.

The dozens of environmental and stewardship organizations that have joined the Ontario ALUS Alliance should demand changes in the program to ensure that it supports only projects that provide environmental goods rather than those designed to correct or prevent environmental harms. Without such changes, ALUS will remain deeply flawed, not supplying genuine environmental services but shoring up an uneconomic, polluting industry.

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One thought on “From ‘polluter pays’ to ‘polluter gets’

  1. Pingback: Polluting pays off | Environment Probe

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