Strange Bedfellows team up for consumer support

If you need any more evidence that times are changing in farming, look no further than a new partnership between the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and an activist group called Environmental Defence.

You likely know the former. The OFA describes itself as Canada’s largest voluntary farm organization, representing more than 36,000 farm families across Ontario. Its headquarters are in the Ontario Agri-Centre in Guelph.

However, you might not know much about Environmental Defence.

In a nutshell, it’s a slick, well-connected, Toronto-based pro-environment group. It claims to be Canada’s most effective environmental action organization, dedicated to inspiring change in government, business and people “to ensure a greener, healthier and prosperous life for all.”

David Suzuki is one of its honorary board members. It boasts of iconic celebrity supporters, ranging from Erin Brockovich to Randy Bachman.

Rural issues are not its forte, per se, but the Great Lakes are. And it hates what’s happening there with pollution from plastic – it says 80 per cent of the pollution in the Great Lakes is from plastic.

The farmer connection here is that Ontario’s environmentally and urban conscious provincial government has likewise targeted The Great Lakes, and, in particular, farmers’ contribution towards algae blooms.

Now, farmer and environmental groups usually mix like, well, oil and water. But in this case, farmers don’t deny their role in algae blooms.

In fact, a major farm-group coalition was created last year to deal with an assortment of public issues, the first being the Great Lakes.  The OFA itself acknowledges algae blooms are “a serious threat to public health, wildlife, and local economies.”

It says without substantial action to tackle the problem, southwestern Ontario’s economy could suffer almost $6 billion in losses over the next 30 years. It doesn’t specify how, but it’s a big enough figure to get people’s attention.

Here’s where the federation and Environmental Defence, along with about 20 other supporting groups such as Ducks Unlimited, have put their heads together. They’ve sent a proposal for addressing algal blooms and funding Great Lakes protection to the ministers of three provincial ministries — agriculture, environment, and natural resources. They want a fund created for the Great Lakes’ clean up, through a deposit on single-use beverage containers, such as plastic bottles.

They don’t say how much of a deposit each bottle should have. However, they believe such a program will encourage greater recycling and keep the bottles out of the landfills and the environment.

Proceeds from the program — from bottles on which a deposit has been paid, but not collected – will go towards on–farm run-off mitigation and other measures that help keep farm products and byproducts out of the Great Lakes.

And although they don’t state a per-bottle figure in their proposal, they say a deposit return program could generate an estimated $100 million annually to help protect the Great Lakes from threats such as algae blooms. That’s a meaningful amount, even for something as vast as an environmental program.

This is a clever approach. The province has made it clear it wants farms to clean up their portion of the pollution problem, and has set a target of 40 per cent less runoff.

But it hasn’t allocated any new money to do so. Blessing this deposit program would be a way to make sure funding is available, with minimal administration costs. And probably, like the farm programs themselves, administration would be paid for from unclaimed deposits.

How can the province refuse?

A fly in the ointment could be consumer acceptance. On one level, there’s great potential for Ontarians to get behind such a program. They too want a clean environment. I suspect overall consumers agree plastic bottles are a problem. They make the choice whether or not to use them, and they can have a role in making sure fewer bottles are discarded.

But I wonder too if consumers will want to see a substantial contribution to a recycling and clean-up program from the bottled water companies themselves. I would. Companies pay peanuts to take water in the first place, water than ends up in the very containers that are a very visible part of the pollution problem.

Sure, water companies provide jobs. And the water they bottle is high quality. And furthermore, directly, it’s not them that pollutes, it’s litterbugs.

But for any of them to say they have no responsibility in this matter is wrong.

The provincial budget is coming up. Watch to see what happens to this unique joint proposal then. And if nothing, then let’s see if there’s a better idea for generating support for farmers to help improve the Great Lakes.

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