Thinking about it

Premier MacLauchlan believes we have a trade deficit.

He is right of course, and it is essential we sell quality goods and services for a higher return in a wider market place.

But if Prince Edward Island has a trade deficit, then it also has an environmental deficit, which threatens both our personal and economic future.

Our Island is reaching a tipping point in its environmental sustainability and that is the deficit our new premier and government had better start doing something about fast.

After a half century of intensive agriculture, especially large-scale potato growing, the Island’s soil has been degraded, waterways poisoned, and our drinking water placed in peril. If you are unfortunate enough to live or go to school in the potato belt, that area of the province where much of the potato production takes place, the fresh country air routinely is mixed with poisonous vaporized drift from agricultural pesticides and herbicides.

The million acre farm has become an unhealthy place to live and work.

Without question, agriculture is one of the Island’s economic engines, however the engine is being over driven and running hot.

Over the past five years, cash receipts from potatoes alone ranged from $203 to $257 million. Still, the potato industry is precarious and debt laden. Processing is now marginal at best with one of two plants closing its doors in 2014, and potato growers led by the Irvings continue to pressure government to permit deep well irrigation.

We need a new model and way forward as an agricultural province.

The environmental and ecological damage attributed to poor farming practises has been stunning over my lifetime. During the years I worked as a senior government official I watched as successive administrations refused to confront major environmental problems with strong and decisive policies or actions, instead taking baby steps gauged not to offend the farming community.

Major studies have been commissioned and reports tendered.

In 2008, Justice Armand DesRoches delivered a sobering report to the new government of Robert Ghiz on the quality of our drinking water and the increasing levels of nitrates mainly from the use of agricultural fertilizers, as well as manure storage and spreading operations. Serious health concerns are associated with high nitrate levels in drinking water, including blue-baby syndrome and some types of cancer and birth defects.

High nitrate levels in rivers, streams and estuaries also endanger aquatic life.

Water testing clinics at the time revealed 17 per cent of the Island’s private wells tested were either above or at the higher end of the maximum acceptable nitrate concentration, as set out in the federal Guidelines For Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

No one knows what the nitrate levels are today.

The recommendations of the DesRoches Report, which included a mandatory three-year crop rotation without exemption, a nutrient management and accounting program, and province-wide free water testing, were considered too drastic by a Ghiz cabinet than was dominated by farmers.

At the time, five of nine ministers had been actively engaged in farming before entering political life. Several maintained strong family connections to agriculture.

Little wonder the response to the DesRoches Report by government was silence, followed by feeble implementation.

A related environmental problem is crop cultivation too close to streams and rivers, with runoff from heavy rainfall killing fish by the thousands.

It has been my experience that nothing much happens in government unless the public actually demands it, or either the premier or a minister takes the bull by the horns and pushes an agenda forward.

Without a champion for the cause it’s a tough battle.

Imagine the dynamic within government as the Minister of the Environment attempts to enforce existing buffer zone regulations while the husband of her colleague, the Minister of Community Services, who now happens to be chairman of the PEI Potato Board, violated those same regulations.

It puts an interesting twist on the relationship between lawmaker and lawbreaker.

I feel a sad country song coming on.

Prince Edward Island has not had an environmental champion in cabinet since Montague’s Gilbert Clements. I worked for Mr Clements early in my career. He was vain at times and extremely demanding of staff. But he possessed great conviction and his commitment to the natural environment of the province was unshakable. As a student of former Premier Alex Campbell and the comprehensive development plan, Premier MacLauchlan will know and appreciate Mr Clements’ many achievements.

It is early days for Premier MacLauchlan. He needs to elaborate on his vision for Prince Edward Island’s future. He needs to seek election, and if successful, to govern a province facing diverse challenges.

But I believe there could be no greater legacy for our new premier, with his optimistic drive and self-confidence, and his obvious deep commitment to the Island, than to ensure its environmental health and sustainability for future generations.

Our environmental deficit is very real and bankruptcy is not an option.

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