Over the past few decades, Canadian farms have increased in size and intensity. As a result, agricultural pollution – especially the contamination of groundwater and surface water and the emission of noxious gases and other airborne contaminants – is now a contentious legal and political issue all across Canada. Environmentalists and provincial governments have typically responded by pushing for more centralized regulation. In Greener Pastures, Elizabeth Brubaker argues that such regulatory changes bring perverse results. They tend to exacerbate rather than curb pollution.
For centuries, Brubaker explains, conflicts about farming were resolved by the parties directly involved, aided by common-law courts. The rule, “use your own property so as not to harm another’s,” provided the foundation for resolving disputes, balancing the interests of farmers with those of their neighbours. This regime – guided by firm principles and precedents, yet site-specific and adaptable – fairly and effectively controlled agriculture’s adverse impacts.
Beginning in the 1970s, governments, wanted to promote agriculture’s growth, began replacing the common law with more permissive provincial statutes. Brubaker chronicles the centralization of regulation and the resulting environmental harm. She focuses on the right-to-farm laws (passed by every province in recent decades) that have freed farmers from common-law liability for nuisances. Such laws often moved disputes about agriculture’s impacts to administrative bodies charged with assessing not whether farming practices harm others, but whether they are “normal.”
Establishing normalcy as the test of acceptability, Brubaker demonstrates, has made possible an unsustainable intensification of agriculture. It has created an industry whose costs are borne by those living downwind and downstream. Brubaker proposes a return to a decision-making regime that internalizes costs, creates incentives for farmers to operate sustainably, and respects the principle of subsidiarity, which places decision making as close as possible to affected citizens.
Greener Pastures proposes fresh answers to such questions as Who should decide what amount of pollution is acceptable? Who has the strongest incentives to ensure that practices are sustainable? What institutions best protect the environment? When are local solutions desirable, and when are provincial or federal solutions called for? A timely entrant into the public debate, Greener Pastures challenges many common assumptions about environmental regulations, assumptions long held by the environmental community, agricultural groups, and provincial governments.
Centre for Public Management
University of Toronto