Stimulate This! Whole New Field of Vision for Farm Environmental Services

A newly-formed Ontario-wide coalition will work to convince governments to pay farmers for environmental services. That’s a promising sign a whole new environmental economy may be in birth, based on giving back to nature so it can lay more golden eggs.

If the people concocting infrastructure investments that governments can sink taxpayers’ money into gave a thought to the enduring sources of wealth, maybe they’d classify soil, water and air as infrastructure in desperate need of help. In his most recent book, reWealth, U.S. business strategist and consultant Storm Cunningham calls this pulse an ““entirely different wealth creation process” than we’ve known for 5000 years. The trick is to make more money than “creative destruction” does by turning forests into toilet paper with an imaginative process of “creative construction” which invests in restoring the full wealth of a forest.

By Cunningham’s estimate, there are trillions in profitable make-work re-projects waiting to happen around the world. Take the estimated $41 trillion needed to replace the globe’s corroded urban infrastructure as a baseline; add in the $12 billion to reclaim the toxic residue from about 100,000 leaking gas storage tanks or the billions for rehabilitating a million brownfield sites across North America, and the 60 billion needed to restore the once-great fishery of the Great Lakes. There’s no shortage of recession-proofing job creation re-life after the collapse of banks, steel and auto plants collapse. Restoring natural capital is a better business opportunity than restoring antique furniture, cars, paintings or historic buildings.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and the new alliance formed by almost 80 organizations in Guelph, Ontario on March 27. The Alliance brings urban wildlife enthusiasts, city-bred sustainable food lovers and leaders of all three farm organizations into the same fold.

The new organization is called ALUS Alliance, named after the “Alternative Land Use Services” concept brought to Ontario via farm organizations in Manitoba.

Four key elements give the new ALUS Alliance its legs. First, it’s backed and run by rank and file working farmers who devote a portion of their personal time and privately-owned farmland to produce environmental services for the general public instead of producing food for the market – thus alternative land use. Second, the value of that service is recognized and paid for, as part of the separate service sector of agriculture. The old-fashioned idea was that farmers provided only goods, such as food or firewood. The new wave has it that farmers can help Nature provide a range of valuable services, such as clean air and water, underground storage of carbon to forestall global warming, or recreational and spiritual delights – thus alternative land use services.

The third proposition, and the one that has carried it this far, is that all the people who benefit from the full range of farm-produced services should chip in to pay the farmer. Birdwatchers and hunters should help pay for the farmland set aside as bird habitat, for instance, just as individuals should pay something for the use of on-farm hiking or cross-country ski trails, or shoppers pay extra for food that’s local and sustainable. This broad and loose partnership has great appeal for farmers, who don’t like the feel of civil servants having the only say about what, when and how farmers will be paid and what forms they will have to fill out when they perform a public service. Government regulations are better at stopping people from doing something wrong than they are at encouraging people to do something right, most farmers I know believe.

The fourth proposition now comes to the fore. As Alliance steering committee member Mike Schreiner put it at the founding meeting, governments have to “step up to the plate.” Cities and provinces should pitch in alongside shoppers, hikers and birders for all the services that the general public receives when farmers divert time and land to enriching nature’s services. Municipal water utilities should pay for extra work by farmers to keep their streams and creeks clean and cool. Other levels of government should chip in to cover their share of such costs as keeping farms beautiful so they attract tourists (the eco version of pay-per-view), and above all their share of storing carbon underground.

Many politicians, including US president Obama are attracted to the expensive and as-yet make-believe notion that they can find holes in the ocean or old mine sites where carbon from fuel-burning plants can be stored. For the past few billion years, Nature has come up with another way of keeping too much carbon out of the atmosphere – storing it in the soil and in plants or trees. Farmers can help Nature do that in hundreds of ways – from adding compost into their soils to growing hedges and orchards or tolerating woodlots.

The proceeds from any scheme to tax carbon could usefully go to farmers who can devote more of their land and time to such projects, which yield a much higher rate of return on investment than governments paying companies to find holes the politicians can blow smoke up.

Bruce Mackenzie, who wrote a MA thesis for the University of Waterloo on this subject last year, estimates there are about $750 million in farm services eligible for government support across Canada – a pittance compared to what failed banks or automakers have received. If governments paid the public’s real share of environmental services from farms, Mackenzie’s findings show, it’s possible Canadian farmers could net something akin to the norm in Europe – from $50 to $1000 per hectare – than what’s routinely paid out by today’s modestly-structured ALUS, more like $5 to $50 a hectare.

“You still gotta eat, folks,” Norfolk County rancher Bryan Gilvesy, a prime mover of the project, told supporters at the founding meeting of ALUS. “But we can produce food while working side by side with forests and streams, treating them as part of our working landscape and doing our best to improve or restore them.”

(Adapted from NOW Magazine, April 16-22, 2009.)

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