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The Smell of Spring: Nutrient Management Revisited

30.mar.03, Stacey Smith, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Put away your snow shovels, grab your sneakers and soak up some rays. Spring has arrived. Many in  Ontario have taken nature's cue and are thinking about their gardens -- their
matchbox-sized backyard oases. Meanwhile, farmers across the province are sorting
through their own seed packages, assessing fields and tending to livestock. And
while the suburbanites are celebrating the arrival of spring, farmers -- already
recognized as stewards of the land -- are wrestling with new stewardship challenges.
Consider nutrient management. Many farmers were relieved to hear last Friday that
Ontario's nutrient management regulations won¹t be knocking at their barn door
this summer. Nevertheless, for folks building a new or expanding an existing large
livestock facility, regulations will have to be in place this summer. Remaining
large livestock operations will have to comply by 2005 and other farms will have
until 2008 to meet the regulations. Changes to the deadlines were received with
mixed response from agricultural groups and citizens alike. The Nutrient Management
Act doesn't make urban headlines like the war in Iraq or severe acute respiratory
syndrome (SARS). Yet Walkerton's waterborne outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 prompted
many to acknowledge the importance of agricultural management in the groundwater-to-glass  continuum. The Nutrient Management Act is just one piece of legislation within  the Clean Water Strategy that is designed to ensure safe water supplies across  the province. Since the spring of 2000, the residents of Ontario and particularly
the citizens of Walkerton have been demanding that more stringent legislation
and safeguards be put in place to reduce the risk of waterborne outbreaks. Agriculture
is simply being asked to do its part. Ontario Agriculture Minister Helen Johns
and fellow OMAF representatives spent the better part of the winter working to
find common ground among the agricultural community on nutrient regulations proposed
last August. Since the conclusion of consultations in February, the agricultural
community has been patiently waiting for the final draft so they could move to
the next steps --namely, implementation and anticipated upgrade investments. Instead,
Johns has decided to allow a longer phase in period to spend more time clarifying
the lingering issues. Some residents of Walkerton were reportedly ³outraged² by
the new direction of the legislation while environmental critics called the delay
³simply not acceptable.² While these groups want a swift resolution and implementation
of the regulations, the agricultural community stressed that the original draft
was simply not practical and argued the effectiveness of its components. The government
knew there would have to be compromises, which is why they allowed time for feedback.
The principles behind the regulations are well intentioned and the consultations
did produce some changes that agriculture groups were comfortable with. And while
government and agriculture must continue to work together to get meaningful and
effective guidelines in place, postponing implementations undermines the intended
goal of protecting water resources and reducing the risk of harm to Ontario residents.
Nutrient management regulations will become just another requirement of doing
business in Ontario. Changes such as these are nothing new for agriculture: pesticide
regulations have become more stringent in recent years; on-farm food safety programs
are being adopted; and environmental farm plans have been implemented by two-thirds
of Ontario farmers. These on-farm risk management systems are necessary to ensure
a competitive agri-food industry and protect environmental and human health. Fortunately,
the Ministy is discussing providing implementation assistance; those discussions
should continue. Most importantly, the Nutrient Management Act represents a commitment
to reduce health and environmental risk to all Ontarians. Shackling agriculture
with red tape is not the way to achieve this, nor is postponing the issue at length
to appease lobby groups. Consultations opened the door for conversation. But without
purposeful action, is Ontario really any further ahead? Both urbanites and country
dwellers want to be confident in the province¹s agriculture, environment and their
own health. For a reminder of why nutrient management is important, roll your
car windows down and take a deep breath. For a better reminder, remember Walkerton.
Provincial officials and farmers should remember the same -- and quickly implement
sensible and scientifically-credible nutrient management regulations.

Stacey Smith is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.