December 3, 2008 – Manitoba is taking a hard look at its farming practices – from the field to the kitchen table – to see how they might be harming the environment.
The province's NDP government has put out two tenders for environmental studies.
In one it says that while agricultural producers are stewards ofthe land, there is "growing concern about the risk to … air,water, soil and biodiversity from agricultural practices.'' The
other says the province is considering a number of new initiatives to make the agriculture industry more environmentally friendly.
While some fear the province is targeting farmers in a bid to score political points, Agriculture Minister Rosann Wowchuk says it's all about helping the industry adopt to the threat of climate change.
She says roughly 30 per cent of greenhouse gases are attributed to farming.
"Our government is very committed to reducing greenhouse gases,meeting our Kyoto targets and protecting and improving water quality,'' Wowchuk says.
"We want to look at what kind of programs we can put in place to assist the industry to improve the environmental protection they can provide.''
The first study would lay the groundwork for a "cradle-to-grave'' analysis of Manitoba agriculture works. It would use a "green'' lens to look at the entire production cycle for
crops used for food, feed, forage, pharmaceuticals, bioproducts and livestock.
The second tender for a “farm portrait'' acknowledges that some practices have a smaller impact than others, but adds there's a need for a thorough analysis to determine how the quality andsustainability of the environment are affected.
"Agriculture varies from region to region,'' Wowchuk says. "That's why we are doing environmental farm plans with our farmers and working with them to improve their environmental practices.''
The province recently infuriated farmers by placing a moratorium on the expansion of hog farms. Despite widespread protest, the NDP said the ban was needed because the exploding industry threatens the water quality in lakes and rivers.
But Ian Wishart, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers, says the studies must be done so future decisions are based on science, not on political rhetoric. While farmers have made some changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many producers are pretty much sitting back and waiting for a formal carbon trading system, he says.
"It's more about giving us a clear signal as to what society wants us to do. We've never had those clear signals out there.''
Some critics are wary. Conservative Ralph Eichler suggests the governing New Democrats are more interested in catering to cities – where they hold most of their seats – than to rural areas.
He feels that legislation such as the hog farm moratorium could have been crafted in consultation with farmers instead of being rammed through to score political points with environmentalists.
"What we've seen is a lack of co-operation,'' Eichler says. "They're just not friendly to farmers.''