Presentation to the PEI Legislative Standing Committee on Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry on High Capacity Wells

2014-06-12

Presentation to the PEI Legislative Standing Committee on

Agriculture, Environment, Energy and Forestry

considering the moratorium on high capacity (deep) water wells for agriculture irrigation

 

PEI Sierra Club (Atlantic Chapter of Sierra Club Canada)

Tony Reddin

June 12, 2014.

Agriculture Policy on PEI- Time for Transition

 

Introduction/ Background on Sierra Club PEI

My name is Tony Reddin and I am presenting this on behalf of Prince Edward Island volunteers with the Atlantic Chapter of Sierra Club Canada.

My personal involvement with PEI agriculture includes connections with programs at the PEI Farm Centre, ACORN and the PEI Food Security Network, attempts to start the PEI Farmworks Investment Cooperative, and many years in the past working on a mixed family farm in New Dominion.

Sierra Club is one of the oldest and most influential grassroots environmental organizations in North America, and has been active in Canada since 1963 and on PEI since 2001, with our stated mission to 'empower people to protect, restore and enjoy a healthy and safe planet'. Our major national campaigns fall under the program areas of Health and Environment, Protecting Biodiversity, Atmosphere and Energy, and Transition to a Sustainable Economy.

Our present projects on PEI include Sierra Buddies, an environmental education mentoring program for young people, and the Annual Family Earth Expo, which was held very successfully April 21st at the PEI Farm Centre (information at https://www.facebook.com/events/391725547640141/ ).

 

First, we thank you for holding these Committee meetings to consider the moratorium on high capacity water wells and allowing the public to give input. We encourage you to include an expanded public input process on this issue in your recommendations to the PEI Legislature.

 

This issue has served to open an important public debate about the state of agriculture and food security on PEI and we would like to see that debate continued and opened up further.  Agriculture is vital to PEI, and a very important part of making the 'Transition to a Sustainable Economy', one of our Sierra Club goals.

 

Our Island farmlands can easily supply our people with healthy crops and food, with enough to continue exporting to other provinces and markets. Our history shows that our Island agriculture in the past has produced food sustainably and protected our good soil and water. That record has been tarnished in the decades beginning with the post-war introduction of industrial farming methods based on large inputs of fossil fuels. Today there is some progress being made in moving back to sustainable agriculture; for example there are a number of very successful organic farmers and good initiatives toward diversifying crops. There are many present factors, which we list below, that call for a more radical transformation of PEI's agriculture, and for setting a multi-year plan to make the transition to a sustainable food system on PEI.

 

Island Prosperity: A Focus for Change, a comprehensive 2008 report outlining the provincial government’s five-year economic strategy, states: “...the factors that helped PEI to succeed in the recent past – supply push, mass production for mass markets, growth through higher volumes, efficiency – reflect a traditional business model which is increasingly obsolete.” (1) That is the industrial agriculture model.

 

Important Role of this Committee

 

Your Committee has shown strong political leadership by making clear recommendations to the PEI Legislature on 'energy' issues last December, and calling for a continuation of this 'water wells' moratorium at this spring's Sitting and we thank you for that. We trust you will continue your important role in presenting the long-term perspective by advocating for clear government policy, planning and action in these agricultural issues.

 

To begin, please give full consideration to all the reasons in favour of extending the 'deep/ high-capacity well' moratorium, as given in many strong presentations you have heard (and many letters printed in the public media). We agree with others that you should make the following recommendations to the PEI government:

 - follow the Precautionary Principle and keep the moratorium in place, plus extend it to include uses outside agriculture,

- examine the adequacy and effects of the present policy on currently-active high capacity water wells,

- determine the health hazard posed by radon gas brought to the surface from deep water wells,

- put in place programs to increase soil organic matter (SOM) and make other improvements to increase resistance to weather extremes, and

- develop a comprehensive 'water policy' with a good public consultation process.

 

Opponents of the moratorium have also made presentations, and paid for advertising messages that would downplay and disregard the past and present negative effects of industrial agriculture and the french fry potato industry on PEI's natural resources of soil, water and air.

 

These messages cannot be given credibility, when one considers the record of industrial agriculture on PEI:

- unacceptable nitrate levels in PEI's ground and surface water, which are often above recommended levels for human health, and for health of aquatic organisms,

- unacceptable levels of pesticides in the air over PEI every summer,

- fish kills, shellfish closures and regular anoxic events,

- depletion of soil organic matter, erosion, siltation and other degradation of soils and watercourses,

- increased farm debt and hardship for farm families,

- severe reduction in the number of farms and of people involved in farming,

- incidents of non-compliance with crop rotation guidelines and regulations, and

- dependence of the potato industry on a fast food industry that has little connection to healthy food.

 

PEI has many conscientious farmers who work to improve the land, but big corporations now control a large number of the industrial farms, dictating inputs and crop choices. Industrial potato producers are expert at growing potatoes and the corporations are expert at processing and marketing the products; that industry may or may not continue in the future, depending on decisions made by those corporations, which as we know are obliged to follow their primary mandate of maximizing profits.

Perhaps they will develop markets for organic healthy potato products...meanwhile how much more damage will we see before the corporations pack up their processing plants and move away?

 

It is unfortunate to see ongoing support of the french fry potato industry given such high priority and funding by the PEI government. This industry may make lots of money for some individuals and corporations (it would be interesting to know how much of the gross revenues from potato sales go back out of PEI to pay for imported inputs such as fossil fuels), but it is costing our Island dearly, not only in resource depletion but also in human and ecological health, including health care costs due to the effects of pesticides and nitrates. In spite of the number of jobs dependent on this insecure industry, many Islanders are increasingly concerned about those costs, and more are speaking out and organizing education about alternatives.

 

The request to drop the moratorium and provide large quantities of water to supply the french fry industry is just another episode in the demands of industrial agri-business to dominate PEI agriculture.

 

In spite of many Land Use Commissions and Round-tables raising concern about sustainable land use policies, the response of the PEI government has so far lacked a long-term vision, and shown a reluctance for the leadership needed to make the major changes needed in our PEI food system.

 

Our land, soil and water need protection and restoration. We could have agriculture across PEI that would accomplish this and still give farmers a good living. There needs to be more support for diversifying, innovation, and encouraging new and young farmers. We need long-term planning for agriculture that will drastically reduce the present high dependence on fossil fuels.

 

Also, because present and future farming practices have such an impact on the ability of future generations to have a sustainable food system, it is critical that young people from all sectors of PEI society be included in these discussions. We encourage your committee to investigate ways to reach and engage young people, for example through programs in communities, schools and post-secondary courses, and including social media initiatives.

 

Transition away from industrial agriculture to sustainable agriculture

including consideration of  Energy / Climate Change / Soil / GMOs / Water

 

This brings us to the main point we wish to make:

 

 - that your Committee should recommend that the PEI government initiate a transition away from industrial agriculture to sustainable agriculture based on the principles of organic farming.

 

This could mean setting policy, goals and time-lines to include actions such as:

- evaluating present programs of the PEI Department of Agriculture for usefulness in Sustainable Agriculture,

- increasing programs to support organic farming,

- increasing organic acreage,

- protecting organic farms from pesticide drift of adjoining farms,

- making PEI a GMO-free zone,

- including public input,

- supporting local production of food now imported to PEI,

- supporting marketing of organic food products to other provinces and countries, including Taiwan and Japan, and

- supporting farmers as they make the transition to organic methods.

 

The ideal of truly Sustainable Agriculture (2) can be defined as farming an area so that it produces healthy food indefinitely while:

- restoring and preserving natural resources so that future generations can meet their needs,

- maintaining and improving the quality of the land (for example, soil organic matter),

- withdrawing no resources from the world that cannot be replenished (for example, fossil fuels), and

- protecting public health, protecting the social and economic conditions of farmers, their employees and human communities, and protecting animal welfare.

 

Important transitional farming practices include soil and water conservation programs, longer crop rotations, selection of better crop varieties and cover crops, integrated pest management, and using alternative fertilizers.

 

This 21st century is bringing many changes to our economy and job markets, to our energy supply and technologies, to our food system, to our weather and climate, and of most concern because everything else depends on it, to our natural environment. 

 

Challenging the status quo

 

We need to look at our food system on PEI from new perspectives, with sustainability foremost in our minds, as we investigate and decide how to best solve this challenge of making the transition away from our present unsustainable agriculture model.

 

That should include looking at what is being done to build a sustainable economy in other jurisdictions. An excellent overview of this is found in a recent book by Chris Turner: 'The Leap - How to survive and thrive in the Sustainable Economy'. Many examples are given of successful initiatives around the world where individuals, communities, businesses and governments have jumped to creative solutions by changing their outlook away from the status quo; and by doing this in spite of the powerful vested interests, especially in the corporate world, that spend vast amounts of effort and money to keep that status quo, which has provided secure profits for many years. I highly recommend this book- some excerpts are online (3).

 

Surviving and thriving with a future sustainable economy will require consideration of many factors, including especially energy, climate, soil and water.

 

Energy

As you may remember from a previous submission, I am passionate about the need to change our energy consumption on PEI to get off the fossil fuel addiction that drains our economy and destroys our environment. Farming, with its present dependence on big machinery and chemical inputs, presents one of the biggest challenges for this on PEI, but with innovation and good long-term planning using many solutions, we can make this choice.

Besides encouraging farming sectors that use much less fuel, PEI could be a world leader in this field of energy conservation by developing modern efficient farming methods and technology that make use of renewable fuels.

 

This is a topic worthy of much more research; for now I include these references to articles about:

 using methane from manure management for fuel and electricity- http://suscon.org/cowpower/index.php ,

and a study done in Vermont on manure methane capture-

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111013111130.htm

 

There could also be future benefits from this for PEI in terms of carbon credits and offsets.

 

Reducing PEI's Contribution to Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change

 

Besides the problems associated with high consumption of fossil fuels, industrial agriculture makes a major contribution to greenhouse gases through the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers:

“...The impact of 1 pound of N2O on warming the atmosphere is over 300 times that of 1 pound of carbon dioxide...Nitrous oxide is emitted when people add nitrogen to the soil through the use of synthetic fertilizers. Agricultural soil management is the largest source of N2O emissions in the United States, accounting for about 69% of total U.S. N2O emissions in 2011...[which were 5% of all ghg's from human activities] 8% higher in 2011 than in 1990.” (source http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/n2o.html )

 

Soil

 

On the positive side, a transition away from industrial agriculture will provide the benefit of increased soil organic matter (SOM), which can provide substantial storage of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and lessen fuel requirements:

 "...Carbon can potentially be sequestered in any soil, but humanity has the greatest potential control over sequestration in intensively managed systems such as agricultural and agroforestry soils. Soil management techniques such as no-till systems often result in lower CO2 emissions from the soil and greater carbon sequestration in the soil as compared to management systems based on intensive tillage, as do changes such as using cover crops, crop rotations instead of monocropping, and reducing or eliminating fallow periods. The use of reduced or no-till systems has the added benefit of using less fuel for working the soil, which reduces CO2 emissions by agricultural machinery; fuel savings of around 32.7 L ha−1 (3.5 gallons per acre)...”

(source: https://www.soils.org/publications/sh/articles/53/4/12)

 

Higher SOM gives crops protection from drought, and could reduce the need for irrigation.

 

An excerpt from the book 'Natural Capitalism' that I include below, explains the importance of rich levels of soil life or biota, which are usually destroyed by industrial farming methods (4).

 

GMOs

 

Making PEI a GMO-free farming zone would be one of the first steps in the transition to Sustainable Agriculture, by protecting organic crops from GMO contamination and preventing pest resistance, for example, the 'super-weeds' resistant to glyphosate. BC is leading the way in this movement in Canada (http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/GE-Free-Zones) and Europe is well advanced on it.

 

A PEI ban on GMO crops would be a premium selling point for PEI food exports and tourism.

 

Water

 

Coming back to the main topic today, we repeat the need to protect our water on PEI from unacceptable nitrate and pesticide levels, fish kills, shellfish closures, regular anoxic events, erosion and siltation into watercourses.

 

Some watersheds on PEI are already suffering from over-extraction of water.

 

Adding high capacity wells on PEI could change the concentration of pollutants in groundwater, could lower water levels in nearby wells, and could cause salt water intrusion into aquifers near the coast.

 

People who live in the large areas of PEI that are unincorporated now have no recourse or warning if a high-capacity well were to be drilled near them.

 

And we definitely don't want high capacity wells to supply water for fracking or a bottled water plant.

 

Conclusion

 

We therefore again ask you to:

- follow the Precautionary Principle and keep the 'moratorium' in place, plus extend it to include uses outside agriculture,

- examine the adequacy and effects of the present policy on currently-active high capacity water wells,

- determine the health hazard posed by radon gas brought to the surface from deep water wells,

- put in place programs to increase soil organic matter (SOM) and make other improvements to increase resistance to weather extremes, and

- repeat your recommendation that the PEI government develop a Water Act with a comprehensive 'water' policy to restore and protect our vulnerable PEI water resources.

 

In conclusion, we ask you to propose The 'Leap'(3) for PEI agriculture by enlarging this public discussion beyond the issue of irrigation wells and beyond your Committee, and by doing further research on and promoting Sustainable Agriculture. We encourage you to watch the inspiring short film 'Island Green' (which “..celebrates the work of all farmers, while asking a hopeful question: what if PEI went all-organic?”) and other films about the transition to Sustainable Agriculture (5), and to check out the many ongoing activities at the PEI Farm Centre.

 

There will be strong resistance from those who benefit from the current dire state of agriculture on PEI- leadership is needed to set a new course.

 

Thank you for your time and attention.

 

Tony Reddin,

PEI Sierra Club,

120 St. Catherines Road,

Bonshaw, PEI

C0A1C0

675-4093 tonysierraclub@gmail.com

 

–---------------------------

footnotes:

(1) p. 13 in www.gov.pe.ca/photos/original/IPS.pdf

quoted in http://peiafa.com/assets/Innovation-Road-Map-Feb2013.pdf

which also gives these figures:

"..In 2001, there were 1,484 farms in PEI; by 2011, that number was reduced to 1,085.

In terms of farm revenue class, in 2001 over 50 percent of Island farms had gross revenues of less than $100,000; 33 percent had revenues of $100,000 to $500,000; and 15 percent had revenues of over $500,000 annually. By 2011, 45 percent of farms were in the gross revenue class of less than $100,000; and the mix shifted for the higher revenue classes: 28 percent had $100,000 to $500,000, and 27 percent had revenues of over $500,000..."

 

(2) http://www.sustainabletable.org/246/sustainable-agriculture-the-basics

 

(3) http://www.randomhouse.ca/books/204441/the-leap-by-chris-turner

 

(4) excerpt from 'Natural Capitalism' by Hawken and Lovins

http://www.natcap.org/sitepages/pid44.php

"...In the organic, ecosystem-based view, the complete eradication of pests is a tactical blunder, because a healthy system needs enough pests to provide enough food to support predators so they can hang around and keep the pests in balance. Some organic farmers also use biologically derived substances to cope with their pest problems. But the best-known of these compounds, the insect-specific family of natural Bacillus thuringiensis toxins, may become ineffective because agrichemical companies are putting Bt-making genes into common crops for universal use. This may appear to be a sound strategy, genes instead of pesticides, information instead of mass. But over time, and maybe sooner than expected, the prevalence of Bt in the ecosystem will select for insects resistant to it and make the compound useless or, worse, begin to affect nontarget species. By 1997, eight insect pests in the United States had become resistant to Bt, for the same reason that penicillin is now impotent against 90 percent of the staphylococcus infections and many of the other germs that it used to control. A coalition of organic farmers, consumers, and public-interest groups has sued the EPA to rescind all Bt-toxin transgenic crop registrations.

 

Monocultures' chemical dependence requires enormous amounts of fertilizers to make up for the free ecological services that the soil biota, other plants, and manure provide in natural systems. Healthy soil biota can provide about tenfold better uptake of nutrients, permitting the same or better crop yields with a tenth the application of soluble nutrients. ..."

----------

(5) https://www.nfb.ca/film/island_green

- + e.g., BBC Natural World: Farm for the Future (permaculture in Britain) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ixx1c3RSw_8 : “...explores ways of farming without using fossil fuel. With the help of pioneering farmers and growers, ... learns that it is actually nature that holds the key to farming in a low-energy future. “

 

 

            

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