Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Elephant in the Room

There's lots that farmers and non-farmers agree with on PEI: that producing food is important, that a working landscape is crucial to the province's tourism industry (people come here expecting to see the PEI described by Lucy Maude Montgomery and Kevin Sullivan).   Where there are real differences and distrust is on the environmental impact of agriculture. Non farmers worry that the air and water is being poisoned every time a sprayer takes to the field, and farmers feel increasingly isolated and misunderstood, as the harsh reality of demographics and economics means a tiny percentage of people (even here on PEI) are expected to produce vast quantities of cheap food.

I got to see and hear both sides of this daily in my thirty years covering resource stories for CBC, and I welcome hearing more through this blog in the days and months ahead. It's an issue that's too important to ignore, and unless there's a better understanding on both sides, farmers and non-farmers will continue to stay in their mental bunkers and regard each other with resentment and suspicion, and that's not good for anyone.

So here's my reality check, and I welcome hearing from others about theirs.

Potato growers have to acknowledge that the quick expansion in their industry following the construction of two new french fry plants in the mid 1990's was bad for the environment.  The government of the day  (Joe Ghiz liberals) pushed for these new plants after the devastating loss of lucrative seed  potato markets because of the discovery of an obscure, but prohibited  potato virus called PVYN.  Potato growers desperately needed new buyers, and the Irving family had developed an appetite for food processing, some say to compete with the McCain family who had moved into Irving turf, the trucking business.

There was also the prospect of hundreds of new jobs (Cavendish Farms remains the biggest private sector employer in the province). And even better, the McCains said they too wanted to build a new plant. This appeared too good for the province to pass up, but I think there were some shortcuts taken.

The government changed the approval rules for these kind of  projects. No one now could appeal the building permits to what was called the Land Use Commission, and tie them up in hearings for several months. Instead projects would be studied by government officials under an Environmental Assessment Process.  There was an EAP on the footprint of the plants, how much water they'd need, air pollution, waste management and so one, but nothing on where the potatoes would come from. Government officials had hoped that potato growers would simply shift production on the same land from seed potatoes (where markets had been lost) , to the french fry business. Instead farmers saw an opportunity and quickly expanded acreage from seventy plus thousand acres, to  a hundred and twenty thousand acres by 2004, and some of that expansion was on sloping land around water ways (land that would never have had potatoes on it before). This in turn led to fishkills a few years ago, and an increase in nitrates, especially in some heavily farmed watersheds in Prince County.  There has been a rearguard action to establish proper buffer zones, get sloped land out of row crop production, and at least some study and discussion on nitrates and crop rotations. What if these things had been dealt with properly fifteen years ago following a real environment assessment? The plants probably still could have been built, the jobs created,  but the environmental impact, and all of the negative publicity that's gone along with it here and elsewhere, might have been avoided (or mitigated as the scientists like to say).  We needed an honest discussion back then, we need it now.

But non-farmers have to come to grips with some realities too. All farmers, organic or otherwise, use pesticides to produce food. Organic pesticides come from natural sources (plants, soil bacteria, and so) and generally breakdown more safely after being used, but organic fungicides (kocide for example) are just as lethal to fish as the synthetic fungicides that are widely used.  Organic farmers use many more management tools like longer crop rotations, physical barriers, promoting wild insect habitat for predators, and so on,  but they too have to fill up the sprayer with something that will kill bugs and control disease.

So the issue isn't (as we often hear in the media) "to spray or not to spray".  It's what compound is being used,  and how is it being used.  And I can promise you that farmers don't view spraying their crops as some kind recreational activity. They have huge investments in time and money in their crops (banks are often more interested in what kind of spray rotation a farmer is on than anyone else). Pesticides are expensive, and there's little incentive to using more than is needed.  Farmers do get very defensive  when it comes to pesticide use because they feel that most of the people driving by think they're doing something "wrong".  The defensiveness can sound arrogant and bullying in public meetings and in the media.

Maybe both sides in this debate need to listen to Rachael Carson. She was the author of a seminal work on the environment called Silent Spring. If you haven't read the book and know her by reputation you would think that she's totally opposed to pesticide use. In fact she says something quite different...

From Silent Spring:

"It’s not my contention that chemical pesticides must never be used.  I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of  persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm... "

So she's saying pesticides  must not be indiscriminately used.. and when they are, they should be used by people who are trained and very aware of the risks involved. She was also concerned about the unknown impact of mixing various compounds, and these days you could had a longer list of household cleaning products, plastic residues, solvents and so on to the environmental stew.

But I think her bottom line on pesticide use is something everyone could get behind.  Farmers could back away from the idea that the public doesn't want them spraying at all, and the public could gain confidence that farmers are doing something because they absolutely have to, but are going to do it as safely as they can.

There is much else to talk about on this topic, including how other countries pay farmers a lot of money to protect the environment.  I'll look at that in the days ahead.

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