In her review of Greener Pastures: Decentralizing the Regulation of Agricultural Pollution (“Our Toxic Harvest,” July/August 2007) Harriet Friedmann is right to insist that not all agricultural pollution can be addressed by restoring rural residents’ rights to challenge agricultural nuisances in court. As Friedmann explains, “to hang the solution to agricultural pollution on courts responding to complaints by neighbours seems wildly inadequate … [Neighbours] cannot be expected to take responsibility for wider problems that affect whole societies, watersheds and bioregions.”
Friedmann is not right, however, to suggest that I embrace such a solution. In Greener Pastures, I propose a layered regulatory environment in which private citizens can initiate legal action, communities can control land use through zoning and planning, those sharing a watershed can regulate pollutants in their river basin and upper levels of government can manage issues with broader implications. I argue that “only when local environmental impacts are addressed locally and broader impacts are regulated at higher levels will farming become truly sustainable.”
I advocate a regulatory regime that respects the principle of subsidiarity, under which decisions are made as closely as possible to the people themselves—where feasible, by individuals; otherwise, as required, by local communities or higher levels of government. Restoring control of agriculture’s impacts to the lowest workable level will best reflect the diverse needs and values of affected individuals and communities. It will also most effectively protect the natural environment, since those who are directly affected by pollution have long proven to be our most reliable environmental stewards.
The pollutants from which local people would, under such a system, protect themselves could come from farms of all sizes. Friedmann distinguishes between large corporate livestock businesses (often referred to as factory farms or confined animal feeding operations) and traditional farms. While rightly pointing out that large animal operations are some of the worst agricultural polluters, she overlooks the severe environmental damage done by smaller farms. Manure from a family farm with fewer than 100 cattle contaminated Walkerton’s well water.
Little evidence supports Friedmann’s suggestion that traditional farmers object to the right-to-farm laws that shield farmers from legal liability for the nuisances they create. While many complaints about larger farms do originate with more traditional farmers, the latter have not shunned the protection offered by right-to-farm laws. Indeed, the organizations lobbying for New Brunswick’s first right-to-farm law represented hundreds of small farmers producing a variety of animals and crops.