The image of Prince Edward Island as a pastoral paradise is a thing of the past, as agricultural pesticides pollute the rivers of the Maritime province.
by Sharon Labchuk
The carefully constructed image of Prince Edward Island as a pastoral paradise was shattered this summer. Over the course of one month, nine rivers were poisoned by agricultural pesticides. Thousands of fish were found belly-up, and frogs, snakes, worms, slugs and insects were exterminated.
It was bound to happen. In just a decade, the Island has become a potato monoculture, with one out of every six acres of all land devoted to potato production. Agricultural pesticide use has increased by a whopping 571% over the past 14 years.
The warning signs were all there. PEI is riddled with rivers and streams, and potato producers plough right up to stream's edge, squeezing the last dollar out of every scrap of soil. When it rains, the rivers run red with eroded topsoil and dissolved pesticides. It's normal to have at least one river kill per season on PEI. It's likely there are more–they just go unnoticed.
Charges have never been laid in any river poisonings caused by runoff from PEI potato fields. Why? The industry holds too much political and economic clout. New "right to farm" legislation further protects growers by preventing people from prosecuting them for damages caused by "normal" farm practices. And even though the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans does have authority to prosecute anyone putting deleterious substances into rivers, it doesn't intervene. Two of PEI's four MP's are farmers.
Potatoes have always been grown on PEI, but it was the construction of the Irving's potato processing plant that encouraged rampant uncontrolled growth of the industry. In 1996, the Irving empire opened a second plant on the Island and now almost one billion pounds of potatoes a year are processed. Both Liberal and Conservative governments have encouraged industry expansion through loans, subsidies and other financial incentives. The land has been savaged by the potato industry and neither government nor industry have shown remorse.
On the contrary, government has consistently ignored the will of the people and sponsored "expert" speakers to tell us pesticides are safe. The potato industry, sheltered by a government traditionally dominated by farmers, has thumbed its nose at an increasingly alarmed public. So arrogant and confident of government protection is the potato industry, that after public outcry over the latest river kills, the president of the PEI Federation of Agriculture said the amount of blame farmers were getting for the kills "was getting a little tiresome."
A PEI potato destined for the dinner table is subjected to about 20 applications of pesticide. During the humid days of summer, growers are on a four-to-five-day spray schedule for blight. These blight pesticides are all classed by the US government as probable human carcinogens, and they account for 80%, by weight, of all pesticides sprayed on PEI. If that's not bad enough, about 70% of the pesticides used are also considered endocrine disruptors.
This has serious implications for human health. As Canada's most densely populated province, most rural residents live near potato fields. It's not uncommon for homes and villages to be completely surrounded by sprayed fields, and most schools have potato fields immediately adjacent to the school yard or close by. For years, people have complained about drifting pesticides. In fact, some intensely farmed areas are known by locals as cancer belts.
Growers aren't required to notify nearby residents of spray schedules and people have no legal right to know which pesticides they've been exposed to. When the sprayer shows up, people have only minutes to pull clothes off the line, shut windows, grab kids and pets, and leave for the day. Vapours from evaporating pesticides can hang about for days after spraying, which means that on a four-day spray schedule, there's little relief form the toxic effects all summer.
Besides observations made by nature lovers, we really have no idea how pesticides are affecting wildlife. No PEI studies have been published but people say they see fewer and fewer birds each year. Carbofuran, a commonly used pesticide, is known to kill birds on potato field edges. The Canadian Wildlife Service objects to its use on potatoes, and many organizations, including the American Ornithologists' Union, have called for a ban. Yet its use, and that of other bird-killing pesticides continues, for the birds have no commercial value. Despite calls for controls on further expansion of the potato industry, forests and hedgerows continue to be torn down. Wildlife habitat has been decimated and what's left is fragmented and threatened.
PEI soil is sandy and the bedrock is fractured sandstone, making ground water, our only source of drinking water, extremely susceptible to contamination. Known ground water polluting pesticides are routinely sprayed and a high percentage of residential wells are polluted with nitrates from chemical fertilizers.
Industry, government and even some mainstream environmentalists have tried to marginalize anti-pesticide activists. But after four years of intense campaigning, the tide has turned. The poisoning of nine rivers can't be ignored and the call is out to halt the kills.
Government and mainstream environmental groups favour "buffer zones" along rivers, to act as physical impediments to the flow of eroding topsoil. Government supports 10-metre buffer zones while some mainstream environmentalists have endorsed 30 metre zones. However, those of us who support a deep ecology philosophy have ethical objections to buffer zones.
Promoting buffer zones as a solution to river kills ignores the larger issue–that of industrial agriculture. Our rivers have become drainage ditches for potato fields. Buffer zones would be nothing more than catchment areas for toxic eroded soil, and deadly traps for wildlife. Lured to buffer zones growing up in grasses, shrubs and trees, wildlife will be poisoned directly by pesticide spray drift, and their food sources will be contaminated.
Besides, buffer zones don't stop river kills. A PEI government report says they're effective in reducing sediment entering streams but can't stop the flow of storm water containing pesticides.
The carnage we've seen in Island streams is just an indicator of the more long-term ecological degradation associated with monocultures and the use of chemical pesticides.
We on PEI stand at a crossroads. One path leads us to the downward-spiralling black hole of pesticide regulation. Before we venture on this path, we should look at its success in highly regulated areas like Europe and California. The bureaucracy involved in administering and enforcing the innumerable regulations would make your head spin. The cost to taxpayers for this is mind boggling. Yet in spite of all the regulations, unacceptable harm from pesticides is still documented.
The other path leads to organic agriculture. This is the path some strictly regulated countries, like Denmark and Switzerland are choosing. They've been down the regulatory path and know it's a dead end.
In the short-term, emergency regulations will be necessary for the immediate protection of humans and the environment, and we need to rewild generous portions of PEI, including all riparian zones. And let's get rid of industry words like "buffer zone" and move swiftly and without compromise down the path of organic agriculture.
* Contact: Sharon Labchuk, Earth Action, 81 Prince St, Charlottetown, PEI C1A 4R3; ph: (902)368-7337 / 621-0719; fax: (902)621-0719; firstname.lastname@example.org
Group A: (sales of each active ingredient greater than 50,000 kg)
Group B: (sales of each active ingredient between 10,000-50,000 kg)
MCPA present as amine salts
Group C: (sales of each active ingredient between 1,000-9,999 kg)
2,4-D amine salts
MCPA as potassium or sodium salt
[From WS October/November 1999]