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

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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