Given the manner in which the provincial government took the reins on the neonicotinoid issue, I don’t think there’s much doubt in Ontario farmers’ minds that it’s serious about what it sees as environmental accountability from them and from others who connect with and influence Ontarians’ land, water and air.
But if there is, activities over the past couple of weeks should set everyone straight.
First, on February 12, the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change released a 44-page document entitled Ontario’s Climate Change Discussion Paper 2015. It’s expected to generate all kinds of conversations between stakeholders such as farmers and manufacturers to name but a few, and help shape environmental policy in Ontario.
This ministry is long past debating whether climate change is truly here, or if the wild swings in weather we’ve experienced in recent memory, including the incessant February freeze we’re in, are a blip. And indeed, the language it uses in its discussion paper leaves little doubt it thinks measures must be taken to deal with climate change and lessen its impact.
The discussion paper is not solely about agriculture, but don’t be lulled into believing it’s not on the mind of environment and climate change minister Glen Murray. He says food security and food costs will be “an early problem” for society, as climate change impacts where food is grown and affects our water supply (more on that later).
To its credit, the report acknowledges the role of rural communities. It notes that as stewards of many of the province’s natural resources, rural communities are vulnerable to a wide range of climate impacts.
And it urges the province to become a leader in low-carbon technologies based primarily in rural Ontario, such as solar and wind power, and in alternative fuels such as biofuels with feedstocks produced by farming and forestry.
The report goes on to note how Ontario should improve efficiency in agriculture and cut down greenhouse gas emissions, citing practices most farmers are already engaged in, such as crop rotation, cover crops, alternative crops, residue and manure management.
Finally, it shows graphs indicating that agriculture, which accounts for about six per cent of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions, has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the last 20 years, but only marginally.
Back to water. The other provincial environmental initiative that caught my eye occurred earlier this week, when the province announced it was introducing legislationto protect the Great Lakes.
Its goal, it said, was to keep this unique freshwater system “drinkable, swimmable and fishable.”
Again, the environment and climate change ministry was front and centre – as were farmers.
This legislation, said the ministry, would reduce harmful algae blooms.
Who often gets blamed for them? Farmers, due to agricultural run-off.
The legislation would also protect wetlands, it said. And where do you find many of those? Of course, on farms.
And if all that wasn’t clear enough, in the “quick facts” that conclude most provincial news releases these days, it was noted that more than 95 per cent of Ontario’s agricultural land is in the Great Lakes basin.
It appears the Ontario Federation of Agriculture gets it. The federation was quick to respond after the climate change discussion paper was released, reminding the world that farmers count on the environment as much as anyone, maybe even more. “Farmers take climate change seriously,” says federation president Don McCabe. “Climate impacts agriculture more than any other industry.”
And here’s a major point when it comes to Ontario farmers and the environment. Some 25 years ago, farmers teamed up with University of Guelph researcher Gord Surgeoner and others to break ground for the rest of Canada with industry-driven, peer-reviewed environmental farm plans designed to implement more sustainable practices on their own farms.
They haven’t stood still. As McCabe notes, research, innovation and technology have helped Ontario agriculture reduce greenhouse gas emissions through new farming practices and through the development of bioproducts, biomaterials and renewable energy.
As the events of the past few weeks, and indeed few months, attest, farmers will need to keep reminding the province of these contributions as environmental discussions proceed. The provincial legislature is bereft of rural representation, and there’s a lot of education needed ahead.