Thanks to DNA-based microbial tracking, the days of easy, unsupported accusations against farmers whenever pollution appears in rural areas could be on their way out.
You all know what I’m talking about here. E. coli shows up in the drinking water and immediately residential neighbours and authorities begin eying surrounding farms.
It doesn’t seem to matter what Environmental Farm Plans and best practices are in place... when it comes to rural water pollution, agriculture is guilty until proven innocent, because agriculture spreads and sprays manure.
Yes, sometimes the source of pollution can authentically be traced back to farming. But that’s not often the case, putting farmers in the bind of not being able to be confirmed as either guilty or innocent, leaving them in the limbo of constantly being suspect for no valid reason.
The classic case is Walkerton where several residents died after drinking contaminated water. Despite the fact the water was of the treated municipal variety, it was immediately assumed that agriculture was to blame, not the two incompetent beer-swilling brothers in charge of the waterworks. And years after agriculture was officially exonerated by an inquiry, suspicions against neighbouring farmers originally fed by the "mainstream" news media continue to linger.
But farmers now seem poised to get their environmental big break. Designed in part to help protect them from false accusations in water contamination cases, a microbial source tracking study has been launched in Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick.
Eastern Ontario’s South Nation Conservation watershed has been selected as a research region in the four-year study, in partnership with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Health Canada.
"As we’ve seen in the past, the agricultural community is often blamed without scientific support when contamination occurs," says SNC General Manager Dennis O’Grady. "The study is designed to narrow the field of possible pollution origins."
SNC was picked for the study in part because it has experienced much success in devising programs with currency at the grassroots level such as the largely farmer-driven Clean Water Program.
As O’Grady explains, the study will provide a better understanding of contamination affecting water quality in rural Canadian watersheds. It’ll develop and validate microbial-based testing techniques to pinpoint causes of water pollution, helping to prevent random accusations concerning potential sources.
As part of the project, surface water monitoring will be implemented at municipal intakes for the Village of Casselman and at sites along the South Nation River and its tributaries upstream. The study hopes to identify the source of any bacteria detected, be it livestock, waterfowl, wildlife, municipal lagoons and septic systems.
A microbial reference library will be created from potential sources and analyzed using DNA-based methods. If contamination occurs, the library will be invaluable in determining the likely culprit.
As terms of the study point out, it’s very difficult to counter claims that pollution is farm-based unless a reference bacterial collection is on hand for a given region.
In partnership with SNC’s Clean Water Committee, farmers in the Casselman area are being invited to participate anonymously in the study by allowing SNC staff to obtain samples from manure lagoons and septic systems.
When samples are taken, the only identification on containers will be the type of operation - beef, dairy, swine or poultry - and date of collection.
The initiative could lead to additional incentives for landowners. Another project being considered for the Casselman area will investigate how best management practices protect water quality on a local scale. The project will provide funding for implementation of best practices.
This is a no-brainer. Farmers should sign up now and take part in the process designed to clear their mostly good names.
Yes, sometimes the tracking system will tag a farmer as the culprit. But for the most part, the system will muzzle random accusers and confirm agriculture’s innocence.