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Think-tank report boosts farmers’ green credentials

KAP president says this year’s combination of flooding and water scarcity shows it’s time for “a rethink”

Manitoba farm groups are lauding a report from a leading think-tank that backs the idea of rewarding farmers for their role in protecting the environment.

The report from the non-partisan Macdonald-Laurier Institute is further evidence “that incentive programs like ecological goods and services are going to be much more effective at meeting society’s objectives than more regulation, oversight and hiring more enforcement officers,” said Cam Dahl, general manager of Manitoba Beef Producers.

Recent events in this province have underscored the need for this approach, added Doug Chorney, president of Keystone Agricultural Producers.

“There’s an opportunity here for people to do a rethink, given the experiences of flooding and water scarcity in the same growing season, two years in a row in Manitoba,” said Chorney.

Manitoba was a Canadian pioneer in this area, with KAP designing the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program, which provides small payments for preserving riparian areas or fragile eco-systems, or providing other “ecological services.” Some pilot projects were initiated here but the idea has been more strongly embraced in areas such as Ontario’s Norfolk County.

The new research paper, titled “The Greening of Canadian Agriculture,” calls on government to take a closer look at the effectiveness of ALUS projects as well as other ecological goods and services projects undertaken by government and groups such as the Nature Conservancy Canada and Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Farmers are now recognized as the largest group of private rural landholders who can influence environmental outcomes by providing ecological goods and services (EG&S).

“This shift creates a new legislative potential, whereby farmers can be encouraged to produce ecological goods and services,” stated the paper, written by a team from the George Morris Centre in Guelph, Ontario.

And rather than try to create a one-size-fits-all policy, the emphasis should be on seeing what works and allow policies to “evolve and improve with experience.”

The paper says support for ecological goods and services seems to be growing, with politicians in both Manitoba and Ontario offering support for this approach during recent provincial elections. The federal government has also proposed creating a National Conservation Plan and Chorney said government officials he’s talked to in the past year have suggested elements of ALUS or other ecological goods and services programs could be part of the federal plan.

Although he hasn’t had a chance to read the report, he said “it speaks to the fact that a lot of good work has been done in this area.”

The Greening of Canadian Agriculture report points to projects like the one in Norfolk County, a highly erodible sand plain that used to be the heart of Canadian tobacco production. A pilot project started with a handful of farms has expanded to encompass more than 140 operations and over 1,000 acres of projects. However, the report is critical of “squandering” investments through “poorly designed policy experiments” whose results are not properly measured and evaluated.

“As a result neither farmers nor Canadians are able to do as much as they might to enhance rural Canada’s ecology,” it stated.

The paper also examined approaches used in Europe, the U.S., and Australia, but concludes most were either flawed or unsuited to Canadian circumstances.

The authors also look at proposals to create a conservation plan for Canada to assess the currently existing natural capital such as soil and water quality, and the rate at which that capital is being depleted.

Such proposals normally include mechanisms by which those who degrade Canada’s natural capital are forced to pay the cost of such degradation, giving them an incentive to preserve rather than destroy it. The absence of agreed valuations of natural capital, as well as important regional differences, are just some of the obstacles that would have to be overcome to make this approach work in Canada, the report states.

A Manitoba Beef Producers proposal from 2009 that attracted the authors’ attention focused on the problem that economic incentives currently reward shifting wetlands and perennial green cover to agricultural land. The MBP argued for government to offset these incentives and preserve natural capital.

“It’s always good when outside, national parties look at policies that you’ve written and say that you’re on the right track,” said Dahl.

The report can be found at www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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