Post-truth world: Farmers continue to be some of the victims

The ugliness of the post-truth world was on display in front of the Manitoba legislature on October 11, as a protest against ending the province’s hog barn moratorium portrayed pig farmers as significant causes of Lake Winnipeg’s water quality woes.

Protestors claimed that pollution from hog barns has hurt Lake Winnipeg and would do more in the future if any new ones were allowed to be constructed. “1 LAKE. 1 LOVE. 0 NEW HOG BARNS” said one placard. (See Robert Arnason’s account of the rally here.)

The problem with this argument is that all the scientific evidence available says this is not true. It’s a myth. Manitoba’s hog barns contribute probably just one percent of the phosphorus that ends up in Lake Winnipeg, with the city of Winnipeg contributing far more and commercial fertilizer contributing most of agriculture’s share. Manure-spreading regulations were greatly strengthened a decade ago, so it is now illegal to over-apply manure or apply it in a manner which could cause significant runoff. Manitoba’s hog industry is a shining example of how a hog industry should be run, in contrast to some U.S. states where lax environmental regulation has led to serious environmental damage.

But this boosting of environmental regulations was never going to be enough to pacify the radicals in the environmental movement and on the political left, the vegetarians/vegans and anti-Big Agriculture activists. While environmentalist moderates appeared to sincerely wish to protect water quality in Manitoba, some of the more extreme activists were mostly focused on fighting the evolution in the hog industry from small farms to big farms. Claiming that hog barns, which are smelly, are also polluting Manitoba’s crown jewel of lakes was a handy argument, and one that sank deep into the public’s consciousness more effectively than talking about the complexities of corporate concentration and industrial transformation.

It’s not hard to understand how that perception sank in so deeply. The former NDP provincial government was not only generally unfriendly to the industry during its 17 years in power, but deliberately played dirty and dishonest political games, aggressively pushing the notion that hog barns were killing Lake Winnipeg. Regardless of the findings of the Clean Environment Commission, which came up with many sensible recommendations for improving the regulations and oversight of hog farming, the government imposed crude moratoriums on the industry beginning in 2007, essentially banning the building of any new barns. The public got the idea that “Where’s there’s smoke, there must be fire,” when it came to the restrictions.

“Ever since 2011 I’ve kept a Manitoba government news release pinned to my office wall. It’s the single most dishonest government communication I’ve ever seen.” – Ed White

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Ever since 2011 I’ve kept a Manitoba government news release pinned to my office wall. It’s the single most dishonest government communication I’ve ever seen. It’s the image posted above. It announces a press conference with Premier Greg Selinger, with the subject being “Action plan to save Lake Winnipeg.” There are lots of government newsers every week and this one didn’t seem to have anything to do with farmers, so I didn’t head down. As it turned out it was an outright assault on and libel against Manitoba hog farmers, with the Save Lake Manitoba Act yet again containing a collection of hog barn restrictions that connected hog farming to the Lake Winnipeg issue. Later the premier even evoked the ludicrous image of hog barns on the shores of Lake Winnipeg as something the legislation would stop. (At the time, right before an election, the NDP was deathly afraid of losing votes to the province’s nascent Green Party, so doing something bold to keep environmentalists on side seemed politically smart, and it also wanted to paint the Progressive Conservatives into a corner by forcing them to vote against “saving Lake Winnipeg.”)

So this post-truth world goes back over a decade for Manitoba’s hog farmers, where no matter what they do or what data scientists provide, it will still face the same libels and public tarring.

When I talked to Robert about the rally I was saddened to hear about the Wilderness Committee co-hosting it. It’s always seemed a reasonable, rational environmental protection organization and I’m actually a member, annually scribbling out a cheque every summer when one of their people comes by to renew my membership. (My father was a noted wilderness preservationist in Saskatchewan and I believe in saving threatened and vulnerable areas.) If they’re going along with an anti-scientific, politically charged campaign in defiance of the evidence, it’s just more proof that our society’s attachment to rationalism and honesty is slipping.

Farmers continue to face these sorts of attacks across the piece, whether they grow crops or raise cattle and pigs. They are accused of causing environmental damage, yet evidence to the contrary or regulatory reforms to address legitimate concerns appears to do little to pacify critics. It’s not fair to farmers, but it’s what they’re used to now, after facing this for so long. Post-truth is nothing new for farmers.

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  • richard

    “….our societies attachment to rationalism and honesty is slipping”….. I think not Ed…. Rather our societies fascination with corporatism and conformity is growing…. And your article is living proof of that…….Where are the facts that tell you unmitigated use of antibiotics in livestock….from birth to death… as a prophylactic, is going to end well for civilization? Where goes the five units of energy wasted to create the one unit of gain in industrial hog production…. into the aether? If glyphosate is so wonderful and benign why is it being banned in Europe today? Just because it is essential for you to adhere to your sponsors narrative does not constitute “truth” my friend…..I’ll take facts to your truthiness and journalistic sloth any day …..farmers are not the victim here, human progress is…….

  • Denise

    If you think Manitoba factory hog operators are victims, then what about the hogs that are under their “care” and the neighbours living near factory hog operations ? The animals and the neighbours are the victims. Victims have no choice,the hog operators do. Most people aren’t against hog production. But HOW it is done is matter that needs to be addressed.
    It’s not just about the hog slurry pollution leaching into the lakes and rivers which is a huge problem. Neighbours are assaulted ,on a daily basis, by toxic fumes vented by massive fans, from these intensive hog building and UNcovered lagoons. The communities surrounding the operations are the real victims, subjected to a combination of ammonia, hydrogen sulphide gases, CO2, virsuses (PEDV, MRSA ) and disease-carrying flies multiplying like crazy at uncovered lagoons.
    It’s clear that the hog industry thinks they should be able to do what ever they want and everybody else should get out of their way. The government appears to agree! It’s hog business first, respect for residents of Manitoba a far second.
    Respect and care for the environment and animals…?? I don’t know where that stands on the government and hog industry’s list. But I do know who the real victims are.
    If the Manitoba hog industry is such a “shining example of how a hog industry should be run’ then why are there approximately 87 sites with PEDv to date? 1000’s upon 1000’s of hogs have died from this disease alone. 90% to100% of the baby piglets in a site die. The sows stand in metal stalls and can barely lie down and are crippled by the time they are released from these prison cells. The hog producers are having trouble with prolapsed uteri, miscarriages and death amongst the sows and they wonder why!!!
    The way they raise these hogs creates a perfect storm for disease to spread and mutate. If the hogs had access to the outdoors even for a few hours a day, disease would be greatly reduced. Sunshine and fresh air are the best disinfectants. The animals would be stronger,more contented and healthier.
    The number of hogs to parish in barn fires is so high, so unnecessary and very depressing. The pork producers are not required to have proper fire alarm systems or provide escape routes for the animals. Tens of thousands of hogs have died, victims in horrific barn fires, because of lax fire regulations. No fire alarms ,no sprinkler systems. No one on duty. It defies logic. Sprinkler systems to expensive? Something as simple as a flap door for an exit from indoor pens to outdoor pens would allow the animals outside for a few hours everyday AND an escape route in the event of a barn fire.
    These animals are smart. They know when to come in from the cold. They probably are smart enough to get out the flap door if there’s a fire too!
    Can we talk some more about the real victims?

  • John Fefchak

    “The ugliness of the post-truth world was on display in front of the Manitoba legislature on October 11, as a protest against ending the province’s hog barn moratorium portrayed pig farmers as significant causes of Lake Winnipeg’s water quality woes.”

    There is a huge difference between…farmers who raise pigs and hog producers who raise hogs in factory barns, which we know and realize are Industry.

    Based on Manitoba’s Agriculture Yearbook and other sources of information, Dr. Don Flaten, soil scientist, shared the following ….quote ” 55% of the mechanically applied manure in Manitoba comes from pigs and 45% from other livestock or poultry. unquote”
    Manitoba’s Agriculture contribution of phosphorus to Lake Winnipeg has been recorded as 35%.

    • old grouchy

      Mr. John – – – your last paragraph contains information that actually IS in the article above. What is different is that the author of the article states that hog manure is contributing 1% of the phosphorus – – – you neglected that fact. What is interesting, not mentioned in both the article AND your post – – – – is that 65% (notice that’s 2/3rds!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) comes from – – – – WINNIPEG and other non-agriculture. So maybe Winnipeg can clean up its act – – – yes? You want a clean lake and much lower phosphorus levels – – – well eliminate 2/3rds of the cottages and lets reduce the population in Winnipeg or at least there will be no allowed new residents.
      (How do you like them apples?)

      • John Fefchak

        To Mr. Old Grouchy.
        If you do the math as provided by soil scientist, Dr. Flaten, you might
        acquire knowledge that 55% of 35% = in the neighbourhood of 19% for pigs !
        Manitoba’s Phosphorus Contribution to Lake Winnipeg.
        Source: Lake Winnipeg Stewardship Board. January 2005/ Interim Report
        Agriculture in Manitoba………… 35%
        From the City of Winnipeg…….. 15%
        From the Atmosphere…………… 17%
        Municipal and Industrial discharges
        within Manitoba…………………… 9%
        Natural Watershed Runoff
        within Maniitoba………………….. 24%

  • John Fefchak

    Unfortunately; The Manitoba Pork Council & factory hog producers do not like or want to be reminded that they have a responsibility to balance applications of phosphorus (hog slurry) with crop removal.

    All excess phosphorus becomes a threat to our Manitoba waters and Lake Winnipeg.

  • John Fefchak

    “Farmers continue to face these sorts of attacks across the piece, whether they grow crops or raise cattle and pigs. They are accused of causing environmental damage, yet evidence to the contrary or regulatory reforms to address legitimate concerns appears to do little to pacify critics. It’s not fair to farmers, but it’s what they’re used to now, after facing this for so long. Post-truth is nothing new for farmers.”
    “The problem with this argument is that all the scientific evidence available says this is not true. It’s a myth”

    Well myth or not, here is one scientist that said the following..read on.
    The study, led by University of Regina biologist Peter Leavitt, recommended that phosphorus levels in the lake be cut in half.
    He placed most of the blame for rising algae levels in the lake on intensive crop and livestock production in Manitoba.
    “If you’re looking for things that you need to regulate to improve water quality, there’s your smoking gun,” Leavitt told a news conference Tuesday.

    Plus there is Brandon University, Prof J Dolecki, our Eva Pip, a notable scientist, formerly of U of Winnipeg , and now deceased Prof. Bill Paton. These people are not myths.

  • ed

    They are very soon going to have it so that the entire contents of the hog operations liquid manure silo can be recycled thru the farmers drinking water system at the house and the drinking water system of the hog barn itself. This will eliminate the need for discussions as to whether this phosphate laden manure is safe for the lake or not. No worries people, they’ve got this thing.