Region 1-District 1 | Opinion

A chorus of ‘precision agriculture’

Term appears to be new theme song for industrial agriculture promoters

The National Farmers Union (NFU) supposes that many people snapped to attention on hearing P.E.I. Environment Minister Steven Myers use the term “precision agriculture” in his CBC interview (Sept. 14, 2021).

The minister was merely trying to propose a solution to the soluble nitrate problem in P.E.I. soil, rivers and drinking water. What he has likely done, however, is provide a catch phrase that will show up in the seemingly enlightened presentations of the promoters of the industrial model of agriculture. Besides, he provided the NFU with more reasons to write an op-ed, not that we lack those.

The majority of people have known the causes of high nitrate levels in P.E.I. In 2008 the Commission on Nitrates in Ground Water said, “Nitrates occur naturally in our environment and are an essential nutrient for plant growth. But if there are more nitrates than plants can use, the excess nitrates can contaminate groundwater and affect water quality in rivers and streams.”

In the past 13 years, P.E.I. farmers are forced to use even more chemicals and have no incentive to increase organic content of the soil. Today, nitrates are the most common chemical contaminant in water and the key sources of nitrate pollution are agricultural fertilizers … and fertilizers applied to lawns, golf courses and other recreational facilities. The commission went on to say “… this is a problem mainly in potato production areas.” The following are among the commission’s recommendations that “new programs be used to encourage the removal of agricultural land from potato production in a way that does not harm producer incomes … and that government continues to support organic farming and new high value crops that require fewer inputs.”

The NFU asks: What kind of wrong-headed thinking goes into the conclusion of the minister of the Environment that more water will help plants to absorb the fertilizer nitrates? That’s his rationale for lifting the moratorium on high-capacity wells. Why do politicians do and say everything to avoid the fact that it is industrial chemicals which destroy P.E.I. farmland. With severely reduced organic matter our fragile Island soil becomes more porous. There is nothing to prevent excess nitrates from leaching into the water systems.

The minister, after proposing some light remedies, declares that “we need to tackle nitrates at a higher level and we need to find a way to reduce nitrates”. The “higher level”, not even giving a nod to restraining industrial corporation-controlled farming with its over use of chemicals, suggests “precision agriculture” as his answer. He explains that “irrigation is an integral part of precision agriculture, and that’s one reason why the province is lifting the moratorium on high-capacity wells for agriculture.”

The NFU agrees that the use of the new ag-technology, implied by “precision agriculture”, can improve many aspects of farming. However, our most important question always is whether or not the best interests of farmers are being served by innovations. Or is this another way to consolidate corporate control, making a possibly good thing into a deeper threat for independent farmers?

Even a quick review reveals that the 10 largest global agriculture corporate giants are primary promoters of precision agriculture. Here are some of the most notable as classified by BizVibe: Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bayer (remember Monsanto?), John Deere, Syngenta and Dupont. Some of these companies control production, processing, marketing and trading of crops and livestock, specifically grains and oil seeds. Some of them produce and sell farm inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides. Others are direct controllers of biotechnology and the digital systems used in agricultural technologies.

One of the Big 10, Syngenta, has as its slogan “As an independent farmer you play a vital role in the success of our business.” We know of course that the “business” of any corporation it to make profit. Farmers know that they work for years to provide profits for corporations, keeping only a small percentage for their own life and future.

The National Farmers Union insists that governments and their spokespersons must gain more understanding of how the agricultural system actually works for independent farmers. If policy makers keep their ears tuned to the corporations, they will continue to miss the root cause of the problems of farmers, the land and water.

Douglas Campbell lives on his family’s dairy farm in Southwest Lot 16, Prince Edward Island, and is District Director of the National Farmers Union.