PEI Chapter of Council of Canadians Responds to Irrigation Strategy

There is no vision nor much hope offered (in this Irrigation Strategy document) for the protection of PEI’s water and land. As Islanders, like the rest of the world, we face the most serious crisis in history – the climate crisis – yet, we are presented with a document that ignores the crisis and gives a ‘license’ for the continuation of an industrial model of farming controlled by very powerful corporate interests.  A model of farming by all accounts that is not sustainable and is doomed – and a major contributor to the climate crisis. 

It’s a  license under the guise of ‘fairness’  given to an industry that continues to poison our groundwater, our estuaries, our land, and air with huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. 

According to the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action nitrate contamination from fertilizers is pervasive in the province and is dominated by the potato sector. 

Nitrate contamination in drinking water is very common in PEI, particularly in areas of the province with high concentration of potato production which is now almost everywhere. But nowhere is the concentration of nitrates in our drinking more prevalent and problematic than in the East Prince and central Queens area of the province. Water reports for example from the City of Summerside, reveal very high levels of nitrates and other chemicals in its water supply. And Summerside is not alone. We know many private wells in the province exceed the legal limits of nitrate contamination.

The federal limit of 10 milligrams per liter, or mg/L, equivalent to parts per million, for nitrate in drinking water, was set in the 1960s has not been updated. This standard was developed to prevent acute cases of methemoglobinemia, which causes an infant to suffer from oxygen deprivation in the blood after ingesting excessive nitrates.

More recent studies which have been published have found increased risk for other troubling health outcomes at nitrate levels significantly below 10 mg/L. A comprehensive scientific review of nitrate drinking water concentrations and related impacts on human health showed strong evidence of an increased risk of colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and neural tube defects at nitrate concentrations in drinking water below the current legal limit of 10 mg/L.

It is important to note that Danish researchers have found an elevated risk of colorectal cancer associated with drinking water concentrations of just 1 mg/L – tenfold lower than the Canadian drinking water standard. A study conducted in Spain and Italy found an increase in colorectal cancer risk at 1.7 parts per million, or ppm, of nitrate. As well, recent studies conducted in the U.S. found greater incidence of colorectal, ovarian, thyroid, bladder, and kidney cancers among people exposed to nitrate from drinking water at levels half the federal standard. 

 As well, there is growing evidence of the damage to human and animal health when both chemical fertilizers and pesticides are considered in combination.

It is astounding that the PEI government continues to encourage and financially support a system of agriculture that is corporate-controlled, offers little by way of food security for the province, is hugely environmentally destructive, and as noted above, a human and animal health hazard.

The local Council of Canadians is asking why should an industry so destructive to human and environmental health be allowed supplemental irrigation? Especially since this is the one industry by government’s own scientific evidence is the culprit behind the contamination of our groundwater – the only source of drinking water for Islanders.

Given these very considerable constraints, and as the document offers no standards in what constitutes healthy soil, no model for real democratic governance of groundwater management, the local Council of Canadians gives a thumbs down to this Irrigation Strategy proposal. We also believe that the proposed ‘Irrigation Strategy’ is another move by the present government to hand over control of our groundwater to corporate interests.

We should point out that the local Council of Canadians has been calling on PEI governments over the past few years to introduce a just transition plan from an industrial mostly monoculture model of agriculture to a more sustainable and healthy food growing system – one that is free of commercial chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The local Council of Canadians believes we need a system of agriculture in the province that is socially and ecologically just where true fairness plays a role in the growing and distribution of food and that accounts for real environmental and social costs.

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