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Environment And Agriculture: Talking The Talk Or Walking The Walk

The International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Lake Winnipeg Basin Summit has come and gone, and I think most participants would agree that it was a resounding success.

To quote IISD director Hank Venema, “This summit has moved us closer to a unified effort under the umbrella leadership of IISD.” The issues surrounding the degraded level of water quality in Lake Winnipeg are many, and it will require the input of many to solve it.

Billed as a meeting of multiple stakeholders including government, researchers, industry and grassroots representatives, the forum attracted people from all walks of life from both Canada and the northern U.S. It is difficult to bring agricultural and environmental interests to the same table, but this summit succeeded in doing just that.


There is no question that agriculture needs to be at the table. With a watershed that stretches from B.C. to Ontario, from Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota to the top of Lake Winnipeg, the basin is huge, and much of it is privately owned by farmers. We use the water for ourselves, our livestock, our crops and our recreation. We have a large stake in its preservation.

We are also part of the problem. Nutrients escaping from our agricultural operations account for about 17 per cent of the total loadings going into the lake. Agricultural phosphate contributions within Manitoba alone, account for about 24 per cent of the provincial contribution. Not huge numbers, but within the context of the size of the watershed, they are very significant.

Invariably, in one of these meetings I hear that agriculture has to do more. My immediate reply is, “Do more what?” because indeed, the answer to that is unclear.


Having been involved with the conservation movement for the last 25 years, I know the commitment individual farmers have made. The local organizations created to implement farm programs in the 1980s and ’90s have led to an explosion in interest that helped to cover most of agricultural Manitoba with conservation districts.

We have planted field shelter-belts, integrated conservation tillage, constructed water management structures, protected riparian areas and changed our farming practices to lessen our footprint on the local environment.

The Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs) that we have implemented have reduced the sediment loads leaving our farms, and in the process lessened the particulate forms of nitrogen and phosphate that have moved into the waterways.

Unfortunately we have not been as successful at reducing dissolved nutrients in the same water. Run-off moving through a thatch of decomposing top growth has left us with a product

University of Manitoba’s Dr. Don Flaten refers to as “green tea, that results in nutrient-rich water slowly making its way to the largest body of fresh water in the province.


Twenty years ago, any expert would have told you that if you kept your topsoil at home, nutrients would do the same. Through extensive analysis and research we now know that the book on phosphate movement is about to be rewritten.

Agriculture has a contribution to make, but it will take new research to determine exactly how that contribution can be implemented. The commercial value of the nutrients going into Lake Winnipeg at current prices would run around $100 million per year. Where else but agriculture do we turn that into an economic benefit? The challenge is to find ways to get those nutrients out of their diluted form in the lake, and back into agricultural production.

Focusing on regulations will only stifle the people we need to solve this problem. Would shutting down the agricultural industry in this province reduce the loadings by 17 per cent? No. We occupy such a large land mass within the watershed, that even if it was returned to a natural vegetative state, it would continue to shed nutrients through decaying plant matter.


The effect of our freeze-thaw cycles inherent with Prairie winters will ensure that the problem persists. While the escarpment streams have been subject to an accelerated speed of drainage, not all those drains are located on-farm. Railroad ditches, highway ditches, and grid roads will continue to provide speedy direct routes even if farming were to stop. The answer is to work with the agricultural community, not against it.

With respect to promoting agricultural-environment relations, farmers may well have received an early Christmas present from the provincial government and University of Manitoba with the recent appointment of David Lobb as the research chair for watershed systems research.

Lobb has extensive agricultural experience and has been involved with rural sites within agricultural Manitoba. He has a firm understanding of the issues facing farmers and the challenges that we face in making phosphate reductions.

He co-authored an article in theSoil and Water Conservation Society’s North American Journal on his work in the area of tillage erosion and has been an active researcher at the South Tobacco Creek Project for many years.


The creation of this new position has been supported by both the Clean Environment Commission and the Lake Winnipeg Stewardship board, and comes with a provincial commitment for an additional $1.25 M in research funding over the next five years. Lobb will be tasked with co-ordinating linkages between researchers, private stakeholders and government to keep progress moving in the right direction.

As Kermit the Frog once said, “It isn’t easy being green.” And turning green certainly hasn’t been a good thing for Lake Winnipeg. Bringing the many diverse opinions and problems to the forefront is taking time, and the only way to further that progress is with continued communications. Farmers have a lot to gain, and a lot to lose in these negotiations, so we need to make ourselves heard loud and clear. It’s your lake too, so be a part of its new transformation.

Les McEwan farms

near Altamont.


Wouldshuttingdowntheagriculturalindustryin thisprovincereducetheloadingsby17percent? No.Weoccupysuchalargelandmasswithin thewatershed,thatevenifitwasreturnedto anaturalvegetativestate,itwouldcontinueto shednutrientsthroughdecayingplantmatter.

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