June 19, 2003: Our provincial government has backed
away from writing regulations under the recently adopted Nutrient
Management Act that would have resulted in a comprehensive
resource management strategy that nets all farmers in detailed
regulations and protocols - at least for now. We'll soon see
a rewrite of the regulations that will be focused on large
and new livestock enterprises.
I'm glad but still concerned. The official government line
has not changed. They still expect that five or ten years
down the road every Ontario farm must comply with the Nutrient
Management Act. Delay is good politics. A large group of farmers
will choose to retire before they are saddled with documenting
the strategies and plans they use on their farms. Creating
this regulatory burden is not good public policy. It remains
the wrong approach to better stewardship in our countryside.
Regulations have their place in our lives. They need clear
goals and identifiable benefits. There is a case to be made
for nutrient management strategies and plans for our larger
and intensive farms. But for the vast majority of farmers,
what's the point of writing down their plans and documenting
what they have been doing for decades? There may be validity
in the argument that there is a public relations benefit for
agriculture to document what it does. Since when is public
relations a rationale for regulations? And where is the benefit
for our environment?
I'm on side with Justice O'Connor's approach to regulations
and stewardship in his report on the Walkerton Inquiry. Step
one: identify the agricultural activities that may be a threat
to drinking water sources. Step two: set a minimum regulatory
baseline or "floor" that applies across the province
wherever the threat may exist.
Where are we on step one: the identification of threat? When
farmers spread their fertilizer -- as livestock manure or
otherwise - close to a municipal well, what is the threat?
When it is spread on frozen ground or snow, what is the threat?
When it is spread close to a stream or on shallow soil over
bedrock, what is the threat? Agreeing to the possibility of
threat is not the same as documentation of the threat. We
are on the verge of ordering farmers to document solutions
before we document the problems. A recipe for frustration.
Regulation is acceptable where the threat is predictable
or has been measured. Beyond the quantifiable threats, there
are many opportunities for agriculture to enhance the environmental
services farming provides while producing an abundance of
Public money and government programs will be much more successful
if we focus them on education and incentives that inspire
farmers to develop environmental services.
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