Natural Environment

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 2, 2003. Partner content is not updated.

THIS IS MY medicine cabinet," says Karl Schibli, his ice-blue eyes widening with the excitement of someone about to let a neophyte in on what he already knows. The object of Schibli's focused attention is a red Coleman picnic cooler on a shelf in his barn near Waterford, Ont.

Natural Environment

THIS IS MY medicine cabinet," says Karl Schibli, his ice-blue eyes widening with the excitement of someone about to let a neophyte in on what he already knows. The object of Schibli's focused attention is a red Coleman picnic cooler on a shelf in his barn near Waterford, Ont., 55 km southwest of Hamilton. It contains medicinal ministrations that keep his 40 contented cows healthy and topped up with milk. Schibli makes a small show of lifting the white plastic lid, like a treasure hunter opening a chest of gold. Inside are about 50 brown medicine bottles of precious plant and mineral extracts for the homeopathic care of his herd. If not for the 57-year-old Swiss émigré's conversion to organic farming six years ago, Schibli says he likely would have quit the dairy business broken by despair.

Schibli's cows were always getting sick. As one veterinarian after another failed to find a solution, he came to think the problem might be bovine antibiotics and the chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the crops he grew for his animals. "As soon as we stopped using those," says Schibli, "we could see the cows doing better." Today, when a cow gets the occasional udder infection, it's not antibiotics Schibli reaches for but a natural remedy, perhaps an extract from the poisonous belladonna plant. With his herd healthy, farming is fun again. "It's like I'm in heaven - close to it anyway. I don't want to say we don't have any problems, but it's 10 per cent of what it was."

There are many reasons Schibli favours organic farming, and he was reminded of one last week, when mad cow disease struck Alberta. The illness, spread by feeding tainted, ground animal parts to cattle, brought home the potential health and economic consequences of straying from natural ways. Organic farming, Schibli and many would argue, is one answer to easing some of the considerable pressure that modern human life exerts on our environment. But our battered planet has many wounds, World Wildlife Fund Canada notes this week in its first-ever Nature Audit, a 104-page document subtitled Setting Canada's Conservation Agenda for the 21st Century. The wide-ranging study, borrowing from the world of accounting, tallies Canada's natural capital. It takes stock of our present-day environmental "equity," and compares what's left to the situation prior to European settlement, circa 1500-1600. The Nature Audit concludes that the way we've accounted for nature in the past - by basically ignoring its destruction - is a recipe for bankrupting BIODIVERSITY. A sort of environmental Enron.

Still, there's room for optimism - if we're prepared to take action. Several industries and individuals are already finding sustainable solutions to our seemingly perpetual problems. Plans for the gas pipeline in the pristine Mackenzie Valley are taking the environment and Aboriginal peoples into account as never before in this country. Shipping executives in Atlantic Canada are doing their bit to spare the right whale from extinction. To build on this momentum, we have to get away from the myth that Canada is a sprawling swath of untouched landscapes. Not long ago, it was hard to imagine we'd ever face shortages of fish, wood, fertile soil, precious metals and freshwater. But rapacious, near-sighted, industrial-scale agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, forestry, mining and oil-and-gas development have changed that scenario. Despite repeated government promises to turn things around, the natural ENVIRONMENT is under siege all across inhabited Canada.

Since the 1950s, Canada's paved roads have nearly quadrupled in length. Cities spewing their pollution spread inexorably into the surrounding countryside. Dams destroy vast habitats and alter water temperatures and nutrient levels. In this character-testing context, the Nature Audit examines how our human footprint threatens to squash biodiversity. Horror stories abound. Honeybees, for instance, are in short supply because bees that Paraguay imported from Japan have made their way north, infested with a deadly mite. Fish are in particularly bad shape - the populations of swordfish, tuna and cod are one-tenth of what they once were, says a report out of Dalhousie University in Halifax.

The Nature Audit calls on us to:- conserve the virtually untouched north
- better manage northern forests
- designate more Marine Protected Areas
- restore habitats to aid species recovery
- curb invasive species, which cause damage in the billions of dollars annually
- adopt industry standards that favour environmental protection
- protect long-lived species that reproduce slowly - everything from carnivores to whales, turtles and yellow cypress trees
- reduce toxin use and get government approval for safer alternatives
- limit urban sprawl and promote public transit

Canada has made significant international commitments. Follow-through is another matter. As WWF-Canada president Monte Hummel puts it, "Promises, promises. I count no fewer than 28 promises to do a better job of conserving nature in this country, promises made by the government of Canada alone since 1970." Canada pledged to do the right environmental thing with the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (we were the first industrialized nation to sign the agreement at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro). The country reiterated that promise in 1995, by enacting the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, which lays out a national blueprint for making good on our word.

Since then? Some modest progress, but more than 400 species remain at risk in Canada. So now's the time for all of us to press for action, says Kevin Kavanagh, director of biodiversity conservation at WWF-Canada. Government and industry are, as always, important, but the buying power of the consumer carries plenty of weight to drive change. Industry knows it. That's why lumber companies have sought certification by the Forest Stewardship Council, an international body that requires sustainable and culturally sensitive woodland management. "Know the products you're buying," says Kavanagh. "People can really make a difference with their pocketbooks."

CANADIANS ARE the fortunate stewards of enormous environmental wealth: 20 per cent of the world's remaining undeveloped areas, 25 per cent of the wetlands, 20 per cent of the freshwater, and more than 10 per cent of the forests. And the WWF is not alone as a source of ideas for decreasing our negative impact on those resources. The David Suzuki Foundation in B.C., for example, takes a practical, proactive approach by encouraging Canadians to commit for a year to undertake three of 10 suggested ways to conserve nature. They are: - Reduce home energy use by 10 per cent (heating accounts for nearly 60 per cent of energy consumption in the average Canadian home)
- Choose an energy-efficient house and appliances (R-2000 homes use 30 per cent less energy than standard homes, and new refrigerators use 40 per cent less energy than models made a decade ago)
- Don't use dangerous pesticides
- Don't eat meat for a day each week (grain production uses far less water and land)
- Buy locally grown food to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants from food transportation
- Choose a fuel-efficient vehicle (a typical SUV burns almost twice as much fuel as a modern station wagon)
- Walk, bike, carpool or take transit
- Choose a home close to work or school to cut down on driving
- Support public transit systems
- Learn more and prompt politicians to promote conservation

In the spring 2000 federal budget, then-finance minister Paul Martin asked an independent advisory body, the Ottawa-based National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, to devise indicators to track the impact that our century-old economic practices have on our natural and human assets. In a report released on May 12, the organization called on Ottawa to make profound changes to the way it keeps the books. To account for the true state of the economy, the report says, federal budgets need six additional indicators - air pollution, water quality, wetland extent, forest cover, greenhouse gases, public education - to add meaning to popular yet insufficient indicators like gross domestic product.

Always a crude economic measure, GDP just doesn't cut it on its own anymore, says David McGuinty, chief executive of the Round Table. Consider an ice storm that causes a run on generators, creates jobs rebuilding collapsed barns, and draws hydro crews from across North America to repair fallen power lines. "The economists," McGuinty scoffs, "come in afterward and say, 'Massive input to the GDP.' " There's no mention of a few million downed trees, the lost capacity to store atmospheric carbon, the destruction of species habitat and riverbank erosion. "Well-known macroeconomic indicators such as the GDP tell only part of the story," warns McGuinty. "We're going to have to evolve our thinking so we can report on the true health and wealth of this country."

IN A PERFECT WORLD, we wouldn't need pesticides. But at least initiatives are underway for curbing their use. The Norfolk Fruit Growers' Association, representing orchards around Simcoe, Ont., a short drive from Schibli's organic farm, produces 15 per cent of the province's apples. For several years, its 22 members have employed an integrated pest management program. When compared to conventional practices, IPM typically cuts pesticide use by roughly 25 per cent, says Julia Langer, director of international conservation programs for WWF-Canada. The farmers also select pest-specific pesticides instead of nuking every bug in the place. That spares the beneficial ladybugs that, helpfully, attack fruit-damaging aphids. "If you spray with a broad-spectrum pesticide," says Langer, "you're killing your friends as well as your enemies."

It used to be that when May rolled around you'd spray pesticide X, in June it was pesticide Y. So-called calendar spraying has generally been abandoned as too expensive and environmentally suspect, says Jackie Bacsek, the growers' association quality assurance manager. Now, the association hires university students to scour orchards for pests, providing growers with weekly reports. Below a certain pest threshold, the cost of spraying outweighs the benefits. "Sometimes that means you have to sustain some damage to the apple tree," says Bacsek, "but it saves the grower money and lessens the impact on the environment."

New IPM techniques may further cut pesticide use. In one approach, farmers fastened plastic twist-ties saturated with synthetic pheromones to their trees. Mimicking a sexually active female insect, the chemicals confuse males and reduce their likelihood of finding a mate. Wholesale buyers in Britain - where up to one-third of the Norfolk association's apple production is exported - also support IPM, and make it a condition of sale. It's an economic boon as well, according to Gary Ireland, who started farming near Simcoe with his father in 1967. "If I wasn't in IPM today, I wouldn't be in business," he says. "I just cannot afford to go out and spray if it isn't warranted."

No company can afford to spend itself into the ground to save an owl. But as awareness spreads, enterprises come to realize there's a market for greener products. In April, Montreal-based Tembec Inc. was awarded a Forest Stewardship Council certificate for its management of the 20,000-sq.-km Gordon Cosens Forest in northeastern Ontario. Certification requires Tembec to submit to independent audits to ensure that it harvests trees in patterns similar to forest fire damage - that speeds forest regeneration. It has to include local residents and environmental groups in its decision-making. It must adjust its operating procedures to protect rare tree species. Finally, Tembec has to consult with Aboriginal communities affected by its harvest.

Rick Groves, Tembec's chief forester for Ontario, sees great long-term benefits. "There should be a perpetual harvest off that forest," he says. And retailers like Ikea, Home Depot and Rona are all hungry to buy FSC-certified products. They're stamped with the FSC logo to help consumers make an environmentally and socially sound choice. "We're hoping we'll get a little bit more for the lumber," says Groves. "We're also hoping that if we don't, that at least we get opportunities to access markets which we wouldn't get right now - that alone would be nice."

Sound ecological practices are by no means confined to giant logging companies like Tembec, says Cam Brewer, a founder of the Canadian Eco-Lumber Co-op in Richmond, B.C. His organization helps smaller FSC-certified woodlot owners connect with markets. Eco-Lumber members produce lumber, decking and siding, flooring, cabinets and furniture from forests that remain ecologically intact after logging, says Brewer. "By supporting eco-forestry, and making it accessible for designers, architects and consumers," he adds, "hopefully everyone will get excited and it'll start to work."

And none too soon, judging by critics of Canada's overall ecological record. "The federal government has adhered to the Victorian frontier development paradigm, which is let's go in, dig it up, make lots of money, and deal with any problems later." That's Peter Ewins, director of Arctic conservation at WWF-Canada, talking about practices pre-dating the planning for a $4-billion, 1,300-km Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline through the Northwest Territories.

That pipeline, which could be operational as early as 2008, threatened to disrupt one of the world's last untouched watersheds if conservation efforts were ignored. The Mackenzie River flows 1,700 km northwest from Great Slave Lake to the Beaufort Sea. Its sprawling habitat is home to caribou, grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, moose and large populations of migratory ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds, loons and birds of prey. In April, Ottawa and the Deh Cho First Nations agreed to protect 70,000 sq. km of pristine forest and wetlands from development for five years, preserving a network of key wildlife habitats and areas of cultural and spiritual significance. "On the ground, that has never happened for a major frontier development in Canada," say Ewins. "It wouldn't have happened without the co-operation of the federal government and the will of the Deh Cho."

A half decade isn't a long time. But Deh Cho Grand Chief Michael Nadli welcomes the deal as a good start for his people, who have lived in the Mackenzie Valley for thousands of years. "What it does is it gives us an opportunity to work with non-governmental organizations and government to try to ensure that within five years there is some kind of plan to perhaps extend the status of that area."

Wherever you look, the key is planning. Take the fate of a declining population of fewer than 350 right whales, for example. The massive mammals were hunted nearly to extinction before the international community protected them in the 1930s. They've hardly bounced back. Living and breeding in the coastal waters between Newfoundland and Florida, the whales have been battered by ships. "The loss of one animal at any time is critical, especially reproductive-age females," says Cathy Merriman, a WWF conservation biologist in Halifax. "Reducing risks is the most important thing we can do."

Again, industry played a role. John Logan, who oversees the right whale file for Irving Oil Ltd., says the company had a responsibility to see that its ships weren't killing whales. "When something like this is happening in your neighbourhood," says Logan, "I think it's important to be part of the solution." Irving teamed with conservationists, convincing the United Nations' International Maritime Organization to move and narrow the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy to skirt territory favoured by the whales. "It's almost corny," says Merriman, "but it taught me that with the right attitude and partnerships you can make really important things happen." It's a good start.


In its Nature Audit, World Wildlife Fund Canada tracks the disruptive "footprint" that we've left on our environment, and our failure to live up to commitments to protect our natural world. Our footprint can be as benign as the displacement of local species by even well-managed farming, or as destructive as strip mining or clear-cut logging.


WWF has calculated to what extent the landscape has been altered from its pre-settlement state. This score, on a scale of 100, measures not the size of the footprint but the average intensity, ranging from negligible to critical, in eight categories: agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries, forestry, large dams, mining, oil/gas, and transportation/urban development. The disruptive impact is on average highest in the smaller, heavily settled Maritime provinces.

Rank Average intensity of disruption

1. P.E.I 98.1

2. N.B. 92.2

3. N.S. 89.8

4. Alta. 75

5. Sask. 59.6

6. B.C. 48.7

7. Ont. 37.3

8. Man. 34.7

9. Que. 33.4

10. Nfld. 24.8

11. Yukon 10

12. N.W.T 4.4

13. Nunavut 0.3


While the smaller provinces have the heaviest footprints, the six largest provinces, from B.C. to Quebec, amounting to 54 per cent of Canada's land and water surface, account for almost 90 per cent of the total disruptive footprint across the country.

Rank % of contribution to total human footprint

1. Que. 18.2

2. Alta. 17.8

3. B.C. 16.4

4. Sask. 13.9

5. Ont. 13.5

6. Man. 8

7. Nfld. 3.6

8. N.B. 2.5

9. N.W.T. 2.2

10. N.S. 1.9

11. Yukon 1.7

12. Nunavut 0.2

12. P.E.I. 0.2


Three years after their own deadline, no province or territory has met even half of its 1992 commitments to set aside tracts of land protected from industrial incursion by 2000.

Rank % of targets achieved

1. B.C. 41

2. Ont. 40

3. N.S. 36

4. P.E.I. 35

5. Man. 34

6. Alta. 33

7. Nfld. 30

8. N.W.T. 25

8. Yukon 25

8. Nunavut 25

11. Sask. 24

12. Que. 22

13. N.B. 21

Maclean's June 2, 2003

External Links