We’ve often heard of the three Rs– reading, writing and reckoning (a term related to mental math dating back to the Victorian era) whenever the subject of keeping the education on track arises.
Or the three Rs of garbage– reduce, reuse and recycle. Right now, Manitoba is caught up in the three Rs of phosphorus – rhetoric, regulation and reality.
As we pointed out last week, the rhetoric surrounding the phosphorus issue as it relates to Lake Winnipeg has risen to new heights of late. The report by a research team led by University of Regina biologist Peter Leavitt set out to test the hypothesis that agriculture, not climate change, was responsible for the change in the algae blooms killing Lake Winnipeg.
Interestingly, this research, based on three sediment cores taken from the south basin, actually didn’t find a spike in residual phosphorus. And the statistical analysis was inconclusive.
“Our statistical approach was unable to clearly isolate the unique effects of crop and livestock production on water quality degradation during the 20th century,” the report says, citing a long list of reasons why.
The researchers then conclude their original hypothesis is correct anyway. “Despite these caveats, the observation that changes in Manitoba crop (wheat, canola, potatoes) and livestock production (cattle, hogs, chicken plus hens) explained 75 per cent of variation in south basin production 1901-92 allows regulatory agencies to develop more effective management strategies.”
The government ramped up the rhetoric even more by pointing to the hog sector as the lake’s single biggest threat.
The hog industry is far from environmentally benign. There is evidence that phosphorus has been applied at rates that exceed what the soil can absorb. But its size and scale relative to the watersheds feeding Lake Winnipeg make it unlikely as the main source of the problem.
Let’s face it. The hog industry makes an easy target. The liquid manure system combined with increased intensification has been problematic on numerous fronts, some unrelated to its environmental footprint, but which still contribute to mileage politicians get from kicking it around.
The production system concentrates the nutrient output into a small geographical area. Confinement systems raise animal welfare concerns. Its reliance on imported feed, and high energy and water use cut into its economic sustainability, especially since the Canadian dollar has strengthened. Besides it stinks, and that ticks off the neighbours.
So the hog sector takes one for the farm team once again. But just because it has a great big bull’s-eye painted on its backside doesn’t mean the rest of agriculture is off the hook.
As noted in our coverage this week, Manitoba crop producers are worried, and rightly so, that the province may look at regulating commercial fertilizer next.
Regulation is one of the R words farmers fear most. But in this case, the province arguably has good reason.
It has long been believed that the cost of commercial fertilizer is all the regulation farmers need when it comes to limiting overuse.
However, the available figures on soil testing suggest farmers are using a lot of “by guess and by golly” analysis when it comes to deciding how much fertilizer they need. Even at high prices, fertilizer is pretty cheap insurance for farmers focused on maximizing yields.
A 2006 joint research paper commissioned by the Canadian Fertilizer Institute and Keystone Agricultural Producers says “26 per cent of the farmers soil test every year, 27 per cent every two to three years, 22 per cent every four years, and 25 per cent never test. Many farmers who soil test regularly are not testing all of their fields, but only a few fields depending on the crops planted and the last soil test.”
Prairie-wide, the International Plant Nutrition Institute estimates only about 20 per cent of fields are tested, and that’s only once every three years.
That’s a concern, especially given the watershed feeding into the lake extends across Western Canada.
Which brings us to the third R in the P debate; the reality that crop farmers don’t have much of a defence when their fertilizer application practices ultimately come under scrutiny. They can’t argue they’re not overapplying, because they simply don’t know.
In light of this, the province’s decision to get out of the soil-testing business in the early 1990s needs to be re-evaluated.
The Manitoba Livestock Manure Management Initiative, which by the way has been largely financed by the hog sector since its formation, should be morphed into a Manitoba Nutrient Management Council, with the mandate and funding to research all facets of human-induced nutrients as they relate to the environment.
If the results support a reduction in the amount of fertilizer farmers need to buy, it won’t be just the lake that benefits. [email protected]