Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario Commentary By Suzanne Armstrong
It is not often these days that blockbuster movies raise issues for agricultural policy. While the movie “The Martian,” staring Matt Damon, is a story of human survival on Mars, it also raises an issue that we often choose to ignore here on earth. Movie goers may be inspired to think twice about the value of what they flush down the toilet for agricultural food production.
The question of municipal biosolids, a product of water treatment, as a source of fertilizer for crop production may not be dinner-time conversation. Still, we shouldn’t turn our noses up at a potentially valuable resource without considering the benefits and the risks associated with its use.
There are benefits to using biosolids on farms for both municipalities and farmers, as CBC News reporter Janet Davison explains in her article on the issue. Municipalities, after paying to treat the material to bring it up to standards, must often pay again to dispose of the material in landfill sites. If instead the material is treated as a resource, valuable landfill space is conserved, and the costs to municipalities are reduced. As a source of fertilizer on farms, municipal biosolids benefit soil quality. Biosolids can be used to replace or reduce the use of commercial fertilizers, at significantly cheaper cost and reduction of fossil fuel use.
Not all farmers are able to use municipal biosolids on their farms, however. As OMAFRA explains on its website, there are significant regulations in place governing the application and storing of these materials, as part of the Nutrient Management Act. Farmers who wish to use biosolids on their farms have to have an approved plan for non-agricultural source materials (NASM). Regulations also demand testing of the biosolids and soil, and consider issues such as the crops grown, distance from residences, wells, or surface waterways, surface slopes, soil depth, and timing and methods of application, among many others.
Even with these regulations in place, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of using biosolids on agricultural fields as part of the food system. Of particular concern are pharmaceuticals and other substances present from human-generated waste that may remain in the soil or be taken up by plants. This is where ongoing research is vital to understand the impacts and risks, to maintain appropriate standards, and to develop better methods of treating and utilizing municipal biosolids going forward.
Public conversations about this issue continue to be fraught with controversy. As Paige Desmond recently reported in the Record, the Region of Waterloo is planning to reopen public discussion on its plans to deal with the biosolids generated in the region, after controversy over its previous plans for a processing facility in Cambridge. This time the Region has invested more significantly in public education on the issue, including a video to increase public awareness.
Farmers should be aware of these issues and get involved in the conversation. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a popular movie raise agricultural issues for the wider public. This is also an important reminder of the many connections between urban and rural areas, and that farming policy is important for everyone, not just farmers.