Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Words Matter

Natural and trust are some of the "nice", "hopeful" words that we use. One is being terribly abused, and the other is short supply.  A recent report, and a column I wrote trying to find a little light in the deep water-irrigation  tunnel.

What does "natural" mean?

Last year, according to Nielsen, foods labeled "natural" generated $43 billion in sales. That's more than five times the figure for foods carrying an "organic" label ($8.9 billion). A new Consumer Reports survey of 1,000 people found that two-thirds of respondents believed  that a "natural" label meant that a food contained:
  • No artificial materials during processing
  • No pesticides
  • No artificial ingredients
  • No GMOs
More than half of those surveyed said that they specifically looked for a "natural" label on their foods.
There's just one problem: There are no real federal regulations around the word "natural."
According to the USDA, "natural" meat, poultry, and egg products must be "minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients." But the agency doesn't go on to define "artificial." Meat from livestock fed genetically modified corn, for example, can still be labeled "natural," as can animals raised with regular doses of antibiotics. And the USDA has no regulations at all for labeling natural foods that do not contain meat or eggs.
Meanwhile, the FDA just has an informal policy that it issued in 1993, which gently recommends that manufacturers use the term "natural" if  "nothing artificial or synthetic . . . has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in the food." In January 2014, the FDA "respectfully decline[d]" requests by three federal judges asking the agency for a decision on whether GMO ingredients could be used in foods labeled "all-natural." That decision led one of the judges to terminate a lawsuit against General Mills' Kix cereal, which, plaintiffs said, carried an all-natural label despite its use of genetically modified corn.
Even with the lack of regulation, plaintiffs can sue companies individually for false advertising—and in recent years, consumers have done just that. In 2013, PepsiCo. agreed to a $9 million class action settlement fund after plaintiffs complained about Naked Juice's "all natural" labeling that belied ingredients like genetically modified soy.
Attorney Stephen Gardner of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the news site Real Clear Politics earlier this year that there have been around 50 "natural label" lawsuits in the past decade targeting products from Kraft Foods' Crystal Light "all natural" lemonade mix  to Pepperidge Farms' Goldfish (which, plaintiffs said, contained ingredients from genetically modified soybeans). However, said Gardner, this list "only scratches the surfaces of the number of companies that are making these claims."
"There's so much green noise out there," says Urvashi Rangan, who directs the Consumer Safety Sustainability Group at Consumer Reports. "Labels can only succeed if you get rid of the noise."

Trust in Short Supply

Trust is one of those touchy-feely concepts spoken about in polite circles. Even so it’s important, and in very short supply when it comes to discussing environmental issues in general, and the demand for increased use of high capacity wells in particular.

A lack of trust means people stop listening. That’s on top of convincing evidence that people’s beliefs are way more important than new information or facts.  We come to our beliefs through our upbringing, education, experiences,  what we learn from people we trust.  

Everyone in the debate over new irrigation wells says they’re waiting for the science,  the peer reviewed proof  that it’s OK, or it’s not.   Some say this because they mean it. Others say it because it’s good public relations,   still others because it delays the government making a decision.  I  think most of the  scientific proof we can expect is in, but that doesn’t make getting to the proper decision any easier, and the lack of trust is a big reason why.

Let’s state the obvious, that many in the general public don’t trust potato farmers, and potato farmers don’t trust them.  This Bermuda Triangle where thoughtful, rational discussion and decision making  go to die is completed by the lack of trust by both in the government’s willingness and ability to fairly enforce regulations. “Ghiz’ Gestapo” is what some farmers are now  calling conservation officers, while many, many in the general public think conservation officers only swing into action once the fish are dead.  This is really troubling.

The evidence I’ve seen including a pretty thorough presentation by hydrogeologist Cathryn Ryan recently at UPEI is that there is lots and lots of groundwater, and that irrigation would take just a small single digit percentage of it.  If this were just a question of quantity, it would be a no brainer (as Stephen Harper would say) but it’s not.  That’s big picture stuff, whereas water use and water extraction impact, is very local (see Charlottetown).  And  there’s a further complication. When it comes to potato production, it would be concentrated in a handful of watersheds that are already  dealing with high nitrate levels.  That’s where Dr. Ryan’s “science” becomes important again.  She had good evidence that if these wells are placed properly relative to local streams, and just as importantly cased for the first sixty metres or so, their impact on stream flow and aquatic life would be greatly reduced.  Water regulators need to demonstrate the ability to find these low-impact zones, and farmers need to indicate whether they’re prepared to  live with them. 

I am convinced that farmers do need the ability to irrigate, and I think the need will only increase because of climate change.  Let’s remember that it’s not just potato growers who use irrigation.  The demand for quality at the retail/consumer level is very high, and  if crops don’t get enough water at the right time,  quality can suffer, markets can be lost.  I also think used properly irrigation can lesson the impact of nitrates, but this requires a lot of precision and commitment from farmers to do this right. (there’s the issue of trust again, because if there’s too much irrigation then excess nitrates will be forced down into the aquifer.) And irrigation must not be a substitute for good soil management, proper crop rotations, and building up of organic matter.  The lack of trust by many that  farmers and government take these seriously is again part of the problem.

Another big  challenge to trust is whether farmers would stop irrigating if told.  It’s the middle of a long hot summer, there’s been no rain for weeks, stream flow drops  by 35% or whatever figure is considered necessary to maintain aquatic health (certainly no agreement there either), but a farmer has invested two hundred thousand dollars in irrigating equipment, another half million in inputs, and is facing a buyer that’s just lowered the base price and increased quality standards.  I can see the conflict and hear the news stories that would generate. 

The challenge is that trust must be earned, and that takes time.  There has to be actions and results,  not just news releases.   I think the government took a positive step making Todd Dupuis an assistant deputy minister in environment department.  The danger for Todd is that his hard earned credibility on environmental issues will be co-opted by the government.   Will he say the same things to government  officials  behind closed doors that he’s said in public. I think he will. There’s trust at work again.

I think the principles laid down by the Federation of Agriculture are a reasonable way forward:  an Environmental Impact Assessment of the policy done by an independent third party; rigorous monitoring of current and any future use of irrigation wells that includes local watershed groups (something the government has not done well to date);  the granting of any new permits would be done incrementally and rigorously monitored;  granting of permits would have to  include  proper nutrient management and soil building practices. I would add  one more: the need for more research on the impact of irrigation on nitrates in groundwater in PEI soils.  If that can’t be managed properly,  I couldn’t support any further development of irrigation wells.

I think the continuation of the moratorium is the right decision for now.  I’m hoping people can take a breath and give the issue a little more thought. The issue has huge economic, environmental,  and political implications.  And it’s not going to go away. Trust me.

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