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Facts not feelings must prevail in agriculture

April 14, 2009 – In this world, few things are accomplished without some degree of “give and take.”


April 14, 2009
By Ralph Pearce

In this world, few things are accomplished without some degree of “give and take.” Someone steps forward with a good idea and almost inevitably, we are all forced a step backwards because of ignorance or an unwillingness to act.

Unfortunately, agriculture finds itself in this situation all too often.

Late in March, as I was scanning through news bits and stories for our website, I came across a piece from the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, in which some farmers in Annapolis County were welcoming the availability of treated municipal sewage sludge to apply to their fields. Local non-farming residents voiced their opposition to the use of these biosolids, mostly on the basis of the odour, The angst surrounding scents and odours can be emotionally charged, and largely because it is so subjective. What smells wonderful to some, like a Caesar’s salad, can be one of the most repulsive aromas to others. 

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What it boils down to is the need to keep emotions in check. People need to learn to rely more on facts instead of feelings, which are poor companions in an informed debate or science-based reasoning. Tell me what you know, and I will listen, but for the most part, I could not care less how you feel about a subject.  Too much of the junk science we see regurgitated on the pages of daily newspapers or nightly news reports is faulty, mainly because scientific reasoning has been replaced by the drive for “15 minutes of fame;” empirical science and methodologies are no longer in fashion. 

But I digress……

Back to the use of sewage sludge, I will agree that it is unlikely to be confused with lilacs or roses. But to object to its use on the basis of a person’s olfactory intolerance, even though the best available science shows it to be safe, is an unnecessary step backwards. In a time of high-priced inputs and expanding urban populations, the use of biosolids answers the demand for natural fertilizer while providing a place for accumulated waste materials.

Where the story showed a tremendous step forward, was the response of a local environmental scientist who acknowledge sludge carries a considerable “ick factor” with its use. “Unfortunately, people are going to have to get over it because it’s a nutrient source.”

Such a mind-set is encouraging to see, dealing frankly with “feelings” that are too often substituted for hard facts. We need to see more of this in rural Canada, and mostly because of the enormous potential that agriculture will bring to the national economic fore in the next five to 10 years. In that time, there are likely to be numerous battle lines drawn across the nation. Arguably, the first fronts in this battle will form here in Ontario, where urban encroachment is threatening farmland and its use.  

A harsh step back
For years, I have expressed frustration at urbanites moving to the country and attempting to impart their will on a way of life (and a business sector with a near-limitless potential) that is far more important than nuisance calls to the local Ministry of the Environment office. Sadly, the vast majority of these calls pertain to odours from manure applications and all-night operations on farms that border their little 5.17 acres of heaven. In my view, if you move to the country, you accept all of its virtues and vices, from the sight of the constellations in the night sky to the drone of a combine harvesting into the early morning hours. Rural urbanites (or rurbanites as they are sometimes caustically referred to) cannot have one without the other, regardless of how much disposable income they have or power they think they deserve.

Ontario’s ruling Liberals would be wise to heed this notion, and understand agriculture’s pending significance to the provincial economy. Earlier this year, a meeting to discuss the building of a four-lane highway from the western edge of Waterloo County to a point southwest of Stratford, created a stir among local agricultural organizations. The theory behind the need for the highway is that Stratford is an economic centre that demands easier flow of traffic and links to Toronto and points east. That the proposed highway will destroy several thousand acres of rich farmland does not seem important to provincial interests or the local municipality. Their concern is to help Stratford expand within reach of some kind of “super highway.”  The major flaw in that line of thought is that it ignores the growth potential of the agri-food sector, in Ontario and across the country.

It is sad that the McGuinty Liberals have convinced themselves that a green space around the Greater Toronto Attitude (GTA) has done anything to protect farming in the province. Rurbanites simply drive another 30 minutes to their secluded sanctuaries, belching more pollutants into the brown sky overhead. 

More must be done to acknowledge the potential of the agri-food industry, in Ontario and across Canada, before any more of these backward steps are taken. We need investment in processing, streamlining in regulatory procedures and most important, a reduced focus on paving over farmland.
Once topsoil is scoured and the concrete is poured, it can be many things, but it will never again be productive as farmland. 

That is a fact, not a feeling.