Evidence of meeting #32 for Environment and Sustainable Development in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was environmental.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Ron Bonnett  President, Canadian Federation of Agriculture
  • Doug Chorney  President, Keystone Agricultural Producers
  • Judy Fairburn  Chair, Shareholder Steering Committee, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance
  • Alan Fair  Interim Director, Tailing Environmental Priority Area, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Mark Warawa

I'd like to welcome everyone to this 32nd meeting of the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development.

I want to welcome our witnesses today. We have witnesses from the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and Keystone Agricultural Producers. Each of you will have up to ten minutes, and then we will have a round or two of questioning. We will go for one hour, and then we will have a new topic.

We'll start with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture for ten minutes.

3:30 p.m.

Ron Bonnett President, Canadian Federation of Agriculture

Thank you.

Thank you for the invitation to come and talk to you about the recommendations around a national conservation plan.

At the outset, I think one thing that needs to be said is that when you take a look at environmental issues, conservation issues, agriculture has been at the forefront of that, right from the time farming started. The biggest resource we have is our land base, and conserving that land base and making sure that there's a diversity there I think is critical to the profitability of our businesses.

If I were speaking to the agriculture committee, I imagine everyone would know what the Canadian Federation of Agriculture is. Just so this group understands, we represent about 200,000 farmers across the country. We have provincial farm organizations and a number of commodity organizations that participate in the discussions at CFA and help to establish some of the policy work we do.

First, with respect to the concept of a national conservation plan, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture really applauds the idea of moving ahead with something like this. We actually attended the initial stakeholders meeting that was held by Minister Kent. I thought it was interesting to be sitting around that table with a number of different stakeholders with the goal of conservation. I think engaging all of the partners in that discussion is critical up front.

You have our background paper. I'm not going to go through every word in that document, but I will highlight a few things that are in there.

I guess the first thing is the whole economic side of agriculture. Agriculture is responsible for a tremendous number of jobs in the country and 8% of our GDP. We're the largest manufacturing sector in Canada.

The reason I say that is because we have to recognize that when we're moving ahead with any conservation effort, we have to be conscious of the economic realities of the sector that could be affected by it. We quite often hear from our members that one of the biggest frustrations is that when you get into regulatory frameworks, the cost of dealing with those regulations can sometimes actually undermine the bottom line.

If it's done right, conservation can actually contribute to the bottom line. I know we've done things on our own farm where we've made steps to improve wildlife habitat and water quality. Indirectly, over time, we've actually seen the productivity on our farm increase. So sometimes you can end up with those win-win types of situations.

The second point in the brief talks about agriculture on the Canadian landscape. Now, 7% of the land is in agricultural use, but one thing you have to keep in perspective is that this 7% of the land is usually at the interface between urban and rural populations. That is where a number of the conservation issues really come to a head. It's that interaction between humans and habitat that really causes sometimes concern, and I think that is where agriculture can have the greatest impact moving forward.

One of the other things you'll note in the background document is that 30% of the farms in Canada now have what's called environmental farm plans. Basically, these are plans that are put together where farmers sit down, take a look at the environmental risks on their farms, do an assessment of those risks, and put a plan in place to try to address them.

I think one thing that's noteworthy is that the environmental farm planning process was actually started by farmers themselves. When they recognized that there was starting to be public concern about the practices out there, they started putting these environmental farm plans in place as a way to try to address some of those concerns.

I guess the key point, though, in moving ahead with any national conservation plan is making sure that stewardship and innovation are part of that whole process, and with that there would be incentives to make things happen. One of the difficulties is making people understand that farmers have this land base that is very expensive, and if you're going to set aside land for some conservation purposes, there may be costs incurred with that.

It boils down to this: if there's a benefit for all of society, there has to be some way of sharing some of those costs. The combination of stewardship, innovation, and incentives is usually a fairly effective way of getting conservation on the landscape.

There's a need for a science-based approach. I think all too often we see rules and regulations develop with the idea that this will solve the problem, but we have to make sure that they're founded on sound research.

A good example would be the recently announced changes to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and moving them away from municipal drains, which are drainage ditches designed to drain farmland, but the fish decided there was a good water course there so they moved into it. But one of the science things behind that is that those drains have to be maintained from time to time. So you may be damaging one drain, but overall the habitat—because you're doing that ongoing maintenance—is creating it. So there is a critical need for a science-based approach.

The other thing I think we should look at with the whole national conservation plan is a way of using that as part of branding Canada. More and more we're seeing retailers starting to look at environmental qualities in the products that are produced, and I think there is a unique opportunity, if we get this national conservation plan right and we're doing the right things for the environment, that we can actually spin that into a marketing initiative both nationally and internationally with the Canada brand.

The other point when you're looking at a national conservation plan is finding a way to harmonize across departments and make sure that your regulations are approached in a systematic manner. One of the things, working with a national conservation plan, is that likely one of the biggest challenges is figuring out how you get all of the different jurisdictions agreeing with the direction that needs to be set. This is because you'll have provincial governments, conservation authorities, and the national government looking at how you implement it, so harmonizing the regulations at all three levels of government and harmonizing the approach are critical.

Concerning next steps, there are a number of land policy initiatives that are described in the document. Environment Canada has activities they're involved with. We have the Growing Forward approach that's taking place now with agricultural policy planning. There are also other organizations that are working on conservation initiatives. Delta Waterfowl is one I can mention, and Ducks Unlimited. There are a number of those groups that are critical in making sure that the national conservation plan works because it's going to be about building the partnerships as we move ahead. I think those partnerships hold the key to the success of having a national conservation plan that would actually have support of a broad range of people from a number of different sectors in Canada.

With those brief comments, I will stop talking there. I think that likely the dialogue back and forth between us will likely twig a few issues for you to discuss, and then maybe in questions and answers we can get into more detail.

Thank you.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Mark Warawa

Thank you, Mr. Bonnett.

Next, we have ten minutes for Keystone Agricultural Producers. Thank you.

3:40 p.m.

Doug Chorney President, Keystone Agricultural Producers

Thank you very much.

On behalf of Manitoba's Keystone Agricultural Producers, I'm pleased to have the opportunity to talk to you today on prairie agriculture's role in the development and implementation of a national conservation plan.

Keystone Agricultural Producers is a general farm organization, a member of CFA, representing individual family farms as well as 22 commodity groups within the province. So we represent a broad base of the agricultural spectrum in our province.

Let me start by saying that we are passionate in our belief that farmers and farm groups must play a significant role in both the development and implementation of a national conservation plan, if it is to achieve widespread success. With proper programming to help inform and provide incentives to farmers, we are certain they can bring the bulk of soil, water, and habitat stewardship to sensitive areas as needed.

Farmers are uniquely connected to the environment because our economic survival depends on our ability to successfully integrate our farms into the surrounding landscape. We learned long ago that attempting to simply use land and water resources without giving back is rarely successful in the long run. As we get into defining how an NCP could work, KAP believes it should identify conservation and environmental priorities, and then establish a framework that guides both government and other stakeholders in the development of tools that will achieve these priorities.

I might add that we must be realistic in identifying all stakeholders who are involved in using resources, both directly and indirectly. One of the basics of an NCP should be a commitment to engage all stakeholders and create a meaningful dialogue. That being said, I do want to stress that goals that bring together environmental successes and farm successes need to be given priority in this process.

Because of the nature of our work, many conservation problems affect farmers directly. These, as we all know, range from excess moisture and flooding to alien plant species that have inadvertently been introduced into our environment from around the world. These problems impact many thousands of hectares, certainly some food for thought.

Let me move on to implementation. Currently there are three methods of achieving conservation goals. An NCP should recognize the effectiveness and the role each one can play. First is education, a critical step. For example, farmers often hear government and the urban public calling on us to do more to protect the environment, but often we're not provided with information on how we can do this.

Providing this information can be a government initiative or an industry initiative. Take the example of the environmental farm plan program, which Ron alluded to. Funded under the federal-provincial Growing Forward policy framework, this has been very successful and it has educated farmers on reducing the negative impacts of their agricultural operations and how that will interact with the environment.

Participating farmers are guided through a self-assessment of the environmental performance of their operation and assisted in identifying areas for improvement. After completion and an approval process, they become eligible for various government incentive programs to help them cost-share the expense associated with implementing beneficial management practices that will improve the environmental performance of their farms.

The EFP program has been tremendously successful in Manitoba. To date, I believe 6,427 farms have completed it. That's significantly higher than the 30% quoted by Ron, but Manitoba has been very successful, so that's good. An NCP, in our opinion, should recognize existing programs like this.

Wouldn't it be remarkable for an EFP model that could provide a framework for education programs in other industries? A good example of industry-led education is the way in which KAP is partnering with the lake-friendly conservation initiative in Manitoba to educate farmers about how they can reduce the impacts of how their farms operate on Lake Winnipeg.

The lake currently has high levels of nutrient buildup, blue-green algae growths, and pockets of eutrophication, which are threatening its health and its entire ecosystem. There is no single point of pollution to blame for the problem, and all citizens in the Lake Winnipeg watershed must take action. The lake-friendly initiative and KAP are working with government, academics, and NGO stakeholders, like Delta Waterfowl Foundation and Ducks Unlimited and IISD, the International Institute of Sustainable Development, on a communications strategy that strives to influence ail Manitobans. An NCP needs to identify, recognize, and promote initiatives like this and take action at a local level.

I promised you three methods of achieving conservation goals, and here's the second. It's called incentives. Because there are often significant costs associated with a landowner undertaking a conservation project or a farmer changing his production practices, and society as a whole benefits from this effort, KAP believes that incentives are a necessary part of the equation.

By incentives, I mean compensation. KAP has been active in encouraging the development of an ecological goods and services program like the national alternative land use services program that provides compensation as incentive for adoption of sustainable practices. If done correctly and with adequate funding amounts, this is a very effective system. A national conservation plan must ensure that this principle of society paying for ecological benefits is a pillar of its program development.

Regulation is the third method of achieving conservation goals, and I want to touch on this briefly. KAP understands that there are instances when regulation is necessary. Unfortunately, Manitoba farmers have witnessed the development of regulations in the absence of sound scientific foundation and industry consultation and without the flexibility to be effective. The result is a regulatory environment that stifles industry growth, adds significant cost to farm operations, and fails to achieve its conservation goals.

Regulations must be based on peer-reviewed science. It is the responsibility of regulators to balance political and public pressure against sound science, using the latter as the primary rationale behind regulations. Regulations must include stakeholder consultation and input, because if they are not enforceable or reasonable they are often completely ineffective in achieving their goals.

Finally, an NCP should establish a framework for the development of conservation regulations that take into account unnecessary costs, or costs that are placed on only one sector. Those making the regulations must consider the economic impact of their new rules, and where significant impact on the industry results, they must attempt to find a better way to help offset the costs to the stakeholders affected.

In closing, I'd like to sum up by giving you an example of what has happened in Manitoba. KAP has been pressing our provincial government to develop and commit to a water strategy that addresses all issues associated with water in Manitoba, including its conservation, management, and use. This is contrary to what is presently happening, which is that issues with the health of Lake Winnipeg are addressed separately from the flooding that we periodically face. Manitoba needs to stop looking at the issues around the natural environment as silos and start treating the system as a whole. It is only now being realized that a strategy needs to recognize and address issues collectively if there is to be a successful outcome.

I would encourage you to take the same approach when looking at the conservation issues for Canada. Regardless of whether the goal is conservation-specific plants, animal species, or entire ecosystems, an NCP must be comprehensive in the same way.

This ends my presentation, and I thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Mark Warawa

Thank you to both witnesses.

We will begin our seven-minute round of questioning.

Mr. Toet, you have seven minutes.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

Lawrence Toet Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Thank you Mr. Chair.

Thank you to our witnesses here today.

Both of you touched a little bit on the ability for conservation to actually contribute to the bottom line in agriculture.

Mr. Bonnett, you talked about there being a win-win situation there. I wonder if you could just give us some examples of how the working landscape aspect of this can be a win-win for both conservation and for the farmer.

3:45 p.m.

President, Canadian Federation of Agriculture

Ron Bonnett

I'll give you a very personal example. On our farm we run a cow-calf operation; it's basically a pasture-based system. Two things have been done on the farm in the last number of years. The first is using some of the incentive money from the environmental farm plan to fence off the cattle access to water courses. That has created quite a bit of habitat, as long as we can control the beavers so that they learn how much habitat they need. We have waterfowl, there's fish habitat, everything is there.

What we also did with some of that money is actually pump water from the streams up into the pasture fields. Well, what we found then was that productivity of livestock increased because they were not having to go down into the water bodies to get water. We pumped the water to them for different areas of pasture.

The second thing we've done is start a rotational pasture system, which uses a whole pasture management system that has pastures at different levels of maturity at all times. For habitat for birds, it actually works better. Again, we're getting more productivity out of the cattle because they are on very nutritious pastures as they go through the cycle. The fact that there are some pastures left to get more mature has created that habitat.

That's just one example on a farm, and there are numerous like that. The thing is that you need the incentive program to help with the capital cost up front to end up getting that win-win situation. Depending on where you are, that land that you're pulling out of production could be fairly highly valued land as well.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Lawrence Toet Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Right.

Mr. Chorney, you also talked about the environmental and farm successes being part of the solution. If you could expand on that comment that you made in your presentation, I'd appreciate it.

3:50 p.m.

President, Keystone Agricultural Producers

Doug Chorney

Sure.

A good example would be from the lake-friendly initiative, which was actually pioneered by nine mayors and reeves in the rural municipalities of the south basin of Lake Winnipeg. Although it was a small regional project really to inform consumers on lake-friendly practices they could adopt, we're now looking at adopting a province-wide program that would include farmers, because we think farmers can be lake-friendly, and many of them already are.

So what we're looking at is being self-funding. In other words, we're not really going to be looking to government for incentives to drive this program. We think the efficiencies producers will realize by adopting lake-friendly practices in a lot of cases will help them be part of the program. For example, we're working with the Canadian Fertilizer Institute on using their 4R nutrient stewardship program as a good way for farmers to be more responsible in the use of synthetic fertilizers and at the same time save money and get better crops. So there's an economic reward for stewardship if it's done well in many cases.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Lawrence Toet Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Would you see some of the wetlands rehab before reaching the lake, specifically Lake Winnipeg, as being part of this process, which we could be looking at on several fronts? It would also create flood protection for the whole province and create great biodiversity areas. Do you see that as one of the solutions agriculture would be willing to work with government on in creating those types of areas?

3:50 p.m.

President, Keystone Agricultural Producers

Doug Chorney

Absolutely. I know I've looked to the Red River Basin Commission, which is an international body including the northern U.S. and southern Canadian regions that are affected by the Red River. They have had several projects of deliberate water storage, not just wetland restoration, but actual tracts of land that have been set aside for storing water. Their goal, through this program, is to offer reduced flows of water in the rivers at peak flood periods without creating downstream effects. So this creates a passive water storage system that will automatically be in play whenever there's excessive runoff, but also gives farmers in the area protection during an excessive moisture event in the growing season. That program...it's not a dike, it's not sandbags, and it's not a diversion channel. It's actually going to store water. The landowners, of course, are compensated for that, and this has to be part of the program.

They have found in the three big projects they've done so far that this is the most economical type of flood mitigation. And we think, with the tremendous challenges last year brought to Manitoba and Saskatchewan, we need to start looking at and talking about these things more in Canada as well.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Lawrence Toet Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Chorney, you also talked about the education of farmers, and you were talking about the environmental plan. Mr. Bonnett also touched on that. Thirty percent of farms now have an environmental plan. There's another aspect to that. Do you see the national conservation program having an ability to actually bring forward the education not only to the farmer, but to, for lack of a better term, the urban population, and promote an understanding of what's really happening out in the agricultural field and how they are part of the conservation solution?

3:50 p.m.

President, Canadian Federation of Agriculture

Ron Bonnett

I think that would be critical. When we look at communication, there's communication among farmers, but a lot of that communication is getting around mainly by one farmer watching what the other is doing and driving by his farm and thinking, okay, that's working for him, I'll do it myself. So I think the incentives and some of the pilots that have been set up have done a good job with the communication there. I think the bigger challenge, though, is educating the general public on some of the practices that are taking place on farmlands today, everything from no-till tillage, which is reducing soil erosion, wind erosion, to things like integrated pest management to make sure that you balance your crop inputs with what is actually needed.

We're into a society now that's two and three generations removed from the farm, and they don't really have a good understanding of the types of things that are being done. I think there's a good-news story out there that needs to be told, and the main reason behind getting that story told is that then there's acceptance of the science-based types of solutions we're talking about, rather than solutions that are based on perception and emotion.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Mark Warawa

And time has expired.

Next, for seven minutes, is Madame Quach.

May 1st, 2012 / 3:55 p.m.

NDP

Anne Minh-Thu Quach Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Thank you both for providing us with very valuable information.

You mentioned both tax incentives and value-added with respect to environmentally responsible agriculture. So we are talking about products that are commercially available, and for which people have privileged information, for instance as to their provenance or perhaps the way these products were grown.

Are you talking about making such information increasingly public, so that people may make better choices? Is this information you would like to see in the conservation plan?