In my 15 years as a journalist, I’ve spoken to more than 150 people who lead environmental groups and animal welfare organizations in Canada.
It’s difficult to tell over the phone, but my instincts tell me that most of these folks are good people. They sincerely believe in their causes, saving bees or halting the logging of trees, and they genuinely want to make a difference.
But a rally in Winnipeg October 11, hosted by groups that oppose hog production in Manitoba, exposed a devious side of Canada’s activist industry.
About 50 Manitobans, including several politicians from the provincial NDP, gathered to protest government changes that will reduce and simplify manure management regulations in the province.
Manitoba’s pork industry has been stuck in neutral for about ten years because restrictive regulations made it too expensive to construct new hog barns.
One of the regulations, developed under the former NDP government, required new hog barns to have an anaerobic digester to treat the manure. Producers pegged the cost of a digester at $1 million, pushing the cost of a new build into the stratosphere. On top of that, manure management experts said the devices would have done nothing to control phosphorus.
Thanks to such regulations, less than five new barns have been built in Manitoba over the last decade. In comparison 200 or 250 new barns are constructed every year in Iowa.
Manitoba’s hog sector, which contributes $1.7 billion to the provincial economy every year, desperately needs to replace aging barns built in the 1990s. It’s expected the industry will make the necessary investments and begin building when the regulatory changes take force. Even with the changes, the province will continue to have some of the most stringent manure management regulations in North America, according to the Manitoba Pork Council.
The Wilderness Committee, a citizen funded environmental group, organized the October 11 protest rally in Winnipeg.
The group promoted the rally as an effort to protect Lake Winnipeg from the proposed regulatory changes.
Hog Watch, an environmental and animal welfare group, also participated in the event.
The two groups claim that the new rules and new hog barns will cause more phosphorus to flow into Lake Winnipeg, threatening the health of a lake already loaded with nutrients.
But speakers at the event touched lightly on that issue.
Instead, they talked about the evils of “industrial hog production” and how Canada would be better off if all pig farms were organic. Others said Manitoba would be an agricultural paradise if all farms were 20 acres in size and if the handful of livestock on the farm were kept outside, as nature intended. And others held up signs saying “bacon=suffering.”
What everyone forgot to mention, is how much phosphorus flows into Lake Winnipeg because of manure from hog barns.
Don Flaten, University of Manitoba soil scientist and nutrient management expert, said earlier this year that if all the hogs in Manitoba disappeared it would barely make a difference.
If all the hog barns in Manitoba were gone tomorrow about one to two percent less phosphorus would flow into Lake Winnipeg, Flaten estimated.
The folks at the October 11 rally, to protest environmental rule changes that supposedly threaten Lake Winnipeg, didn’t mention Flaten or other research showing the fractional contribution of the hog industry.
That’s because it’s beside the point.
Their point is pretty simple: they don’t like the idea of raising pigs in barns, they don’t like companies or farmers that profit from hog production and they don’t like idea of raising livestock for meat.
Which is all fine.
If someone doesn’t like something in Canada, they have a right to say so.
But be honest and hold a rally to express your genuine feelings. Organize an event to protest the consumption of meat. Hold an animal welfare rally against the “industrial production” of pork.
Don’t pretend that you and your group are protecting the planet from hog industry evildoers, who are deliberately poisoning Lake Winnipeg.
If one to two percent or even four percent of the phosphorus entering the lake comes from hog manure, you have no cause to wave your fist at hog farmers or the provincial government.
If you’re gonna wave your fist, don’t wave it at X to protest Y.
Otherwise, the public and journalists stop taking you seriously.