During the early 2000s, the effect of manure from hog barns on Lake Winnipeg was a huge story in Manitoba.
Environmental groups, media reports and the provincial government all said that phosphorus from hog manure was flowing into the lake and polluting it with excessive nutrients.
Now that the province may soon see new barns be built after 10 years of almost no construction, the familiar arguments are back.
However, Don Flaten, a University of Manitoba soil scientist and phosphorus expert, said the campaign against hog barns is absurd because pig manure contributes very little phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg.
If all the hogs in Manitoba disappeared, the amount of phosphorus flowing into the lake would essentially be the same, he said.
“My estimate is the most reduction you could expect, at the very most, (is) one to two percent,” said Flaten, who served on the Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board and the Manitoba Phosphorus Expert Committee.
“And maybe less than that if the farmers using pig manure had to switch over to (commercial) fertilizers…. It’s not as big a contributor as most people would like to think.”
Lake Winnipeg campaigners and groups opposed to the hog industry are concerned because earlier this year the Manitoba government proposed to simplify regulations for manure management. Hog producers have said the existing rules are excessive and in some cases ineffective.
Hog Watch Manitoba, a group that hasn’t existed for years, re-convened because it believes the changes could increase phosphorus run-off and harm Lake Winnipeg.
Excessive phosphorus can cause algal blooms and potentially damage the aquatic ecosystem.
Flaten said the proposals are designed to only “reduce the redundancy of regulations.”
If the proposed changes become law, possibly in the fall, Manitoba will still have stringent rules.
“The pork industry is actually one of the most responsible nutrient management groups in the province. A lot of this extraordinary concern is unwarranted.”
Vicki Burns, a member of Hog Watch and former outreach co-ordinator with the Lake Winnipeg Foundation, isn’t convinced.
Burns said she respects Flaten and his expertise but the evidence she looks at indicates that hog manure is a major threat to Lake Winnipeg.
“I would want to see Don Flaten’s analysis,” she said, adding the amount of phosphorus entering the lake doubled in the 1990s, at the same time that new hog barns were popping up all over the province.
The NDP government introduced tougher regulations for management and application of hog manure, but the rules didn’t cut the amount of phosphorus entering the lake, Burns said.
“It may have made a difference in not making the situation worse,” she said.
“Go to Manitoba Conservation … and ask for their data on how much phosphorus is in the lake. You’ll find out that it’s not decreased at all yet.”
Flaten said the crusade against the hog industry is illogical because phosphorus from human waste and weak provincial regulations for municipal sewage is a larger concern. For example, Winnipeg doesn’t have an “effective and operational phosphorus removal system” for waste water.
“(Plus) small communities are allowed to simply pull the plug on their lagoons and discharge municipal waste water to a nearby creek or river. With a livestock farm, this sort of practice would never be allowed.”
Burns agreed that the Winnipeg’s lack of action on phosphorus removal is shameful.
“Human sewage absolutely is the number one thing we should be trying to change.”
But she maintains that hog manure must also be addressed.
“I know probably a lot of people in the hog industry think that HogWatch and I personally am trying to shut down the (industry),” she said.
“That’s not the case at all. What we’re trying to do is encourage our hog producers and the whole industry to look to how we can maintain an industry in a very, very sustainable way.”