Taking care of our water and soil, part 1

My generation has done a terrible job of living on this planet.

Collectively, we have created no end of enormous problems – social, environmental and economic. It was this that caused me to get involved in politics, and the consequences to future generations of our mismanagement remains my political inspiration today.

We talk of global climate change as a “problem”, but more accurately it is the symptom of a deeper and larger problem – our collective choice to pursue unlimited economic growth on a finite planet. Insatiable greed and short-sightedness are the problem, and one of the symptoms of those attitudes is climate change. There are countless other examples of the current challenges we are facing that are the result of a misguided set of priorities and values.

This week there was a fish kill on PEI. We call them fish kills because whatever causes the sudden mass mortality is made visible by the hundreds of dead fish which suddenly appear. But other aquatic life forms – insects, amphibians, invertebrates etc – while perhaps not as obvious as the brook trout, are just as dead. River kill is a much more accurate description of such events.

But these regular and catastrophic incidents (there have been 51 “fish kills” since 1962 on PEI which have been proven or suspected to be caused by pesticides) are really only symptoms of a deeper problem.  That problem is the way we farm. This isn’t just a PEI problem, it is something which is happening all over the world where industrial agriculture has risen to prominence. The unavoidable consequences of the type of farming we have embraced on PEI are many – increased erosion, decreased organic matter, and contamination of surface and groundwater to name a few. Although we have been farming PEI for many generations, the type of agriculture that has come to dominate our Island is a relatively recent event.

Many highly sophisticated and successful civilizations have come to a crashing halt because they failed to take care of their soil (Robin Wright discussed the examples of Rome, Sumer, Maya, and Easter Island, among others, in the 2010 CBC Massey Lecture A Short History of Progress; audio). We need to treat soil as a finite, non-renewable resource. This is especially true here on the Island where our topsoil is thin and friable. We have “gotten away” with the loss of topsoil that the Island has endured in recent years only by pumping more chemical fertilizers to sustain yields. The soil has become little more than a medium for growing chemical-dependent crops. But healthy soil is a living organism. It has been said by some more traditional farmers that they are not just growing crops, they are growing soil.

And when our pesticide-contaminated soil ends up in streams, we are not only losing arguably our most precious resource, we are ruining our watercourses in the process. And that’s a problem – or more accurately that’s a symptom of a problem. It is not useful to attach blame for why we are where we are, but it is absolutely necessary that we acknowledge the unavoidable problems created by the system of agriculture we use. It is equally necessary that we develop a vision of how we can grow our food differently, and how we can support Island farmers in getting from here to there. Next time I will talk about what options we have to support Island farmers in a transition to a more sustainable way of growing our food.