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Manure's polluting effect unknown
scientists: Agriculture Canada admits more research is needed
Tom Spears
The Ottawa Citizen

Canada is boosting more high-intensity livestock farms -- even though the government reveals it doesn't know how to keep manure from polluting more of the country's shorelines.

As signs go up declaring a massive stretch of Lake Huron beaches permanently polluted from dangerously high levels of E. coli, internal documents show Agriculture Canada has poured $2 million into research on how to control manure pollution.

But the researchers are telling government the effects of manure on health and the environment aren't really understood.

Yet researchers at Agriculture Canada takes a firm pro-manure stand. Anyone who warns of bacterial pollution from manure is just being "negative," the department's officials say.

So are warnings that pesticides may cause cancer.

And Agriculture Canada's communications strategy advises Minister Lyle Vanclief to tell reporters that while research is advancing on manure pollution, in the real world "it takes time to see new practices adopted on a wide scale."

The manure problem is hotly debated in many provinces where industrial-scale farming now produces thousands of pigs or cattle in a single barn or feedlot. Federal figures show the manure spread in Ontario and Quebec is a great as the sewage from more than 100 million people, and it causes growing environmental harm.

This fall, a series of public beaches along a 40-kilometre section of Lake Huron have been permanently posted as unsafe for swimming because of 10 years of chronically high E. coli bacteria levels. Huron is the world's third-largest lake and a major tourist destination.

Canada and the United States have a treaty -- the strongest type of international deal -- not to pollute shared waters between the two countries. Yet the federal efforts support expansion of the mega-farms that produce more manure, while hoping that research will eventually control the pollution somehow.

Since 1999, Agriculture Canada has allocated at least $2 million for environmental research related to livestock, mostly for aspects of the manure issue.

Documents outlining this, and the department's strategy on the issue, were obtained by Ottawa researcher Ken Rubin.

These projects include:

- Research on how to destroy "certain pathogenic micro-organisms in swine, bovine and poultry fecal matter," whose presence "suggests that the use of manure as fertilizer may pose a danger in contaminating fertilized lands, the crops grown on these lands, as well as water drained from them."

This proposal from researchers the Universite de Montreal puts the problem in two lights. On one hand, it says, There's a danger from E. coli, listeria, salmonella, cryptosporidium (a microbe that's especially resistant to water chlorination systems) and giardia -- the bug that causes "beaver fever."

On the other, it says that proper storage of manure causes conditions that kill all or most of these disease-causing bugs so that spreading manure poses "little or no danger to public health."

But the researchers say no one knows enough about manure handling yet to say for certain what the proper handling methods are.

They say the agriculture industry still needs to ask what microbes are present in manure, whether they survive in soil, water and vegetables, whether treatments available today actually do kill the bacteria, and to see whether bacteria in the environment come from livestock or other sources.

Only then, they conclude, will researchers or industry be able "to assess the effects of spreading manure on soil and water contamination or vegetable contamination and recommend appropriate treatments to reduce any risks -- if necessary."

- And in the meantime, another research summary says poor manure handling is common, and perfectly legal, and environmental damage is already resulting.

"A survey of almost 18,000 Quebec farms in 1998 and 1999 "clearly indicated that refining (manure) storage methods must be made a priority if better control is to be gained over pollution resulting directly or indirectly from dairy cow dung," it says.

"However, clearly, farmers ... have few options," it says. Most dairy farmers store manure in the fields because sealed containers are expensive, and field manure storage falls under regulations passed "before any in-depth research or analysis was conducted on the subject." As a result, the regulations don't control pollution. The summary comes from the Quebec Federation of Milk Producers.

- One study of the Grand River region in southern Ontario warns that drugs and antibiotics added to livestock feed escape into the environment through manure. "Agriculture and other human activities result in the release of significant amounts of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics into surface waters in Ontario. (They) may present a risk to the environment."

- Another $31,000 is allocated to investigate ways to reduce odour emissions from large pig farms.

- A $32,500 project will attempt to find ways to fight contamination of groundwater by manure "slurry" -- the liquefied manure mix that is sprayed on fields.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2003

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