Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Central Experimental Farm and Public Health

For the last fifteen months I’ve been investigating the events around the severance of 60 acres of the Central Experimental Farm. Since John Baird and Jack Kitts announced the deal on November 3rd 2014, numerous issues have arose including: 
  • The utter lack of consultations on the land transfer (and the decision to not consult on this portion whatsoever);  
  • Keeping Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada officials out of the loop until the National Capital Commission and Ottawa Hospital had a sixth draft Memorandum of Understanding for discussion;  
  • Worse, not consulting AAFC’s Science and Technology Branch—which operates the research fields of the Farm—until the day of the announcement and then only on the text of media documents;  
  • The fact that the planned campus will destroy long term research projects on the impact of climate on agriculture, part of an international project with sites around the world; and, 
  • Relying on a 7 year old, previously rejected, unweighted land decision matrix to choose the site.
Recently the Ottawa Hospital’s Planning and Facilities department has been at the centre of a number of scandals from corruption allegations now being investigated by the police to allegedly breaking provincial rules on sole source contracts. While The Hospital’s lead on the Farm file—Cameron Love—has been cleared of wrong doing in an audit, a construction lawyer interviewed by the CBC suggests his use of hospital contractors for personal projects points to further conflicts of interest.

These very serious allegations aside, one aspect of the deal that I have only recently began thinking about is the relationship between the Experimental Farm’s scientific mandate and public health. One defense of the land transfer is that the federal and provincial governments must balance public goods and that while 60 acres of experimental land may be important, it is less valuable than a new hospital campus. To date neither the proponents nor the opponents of the land deal seem to have thoroughly examined this line of argument.

With that in mind, I want to present three public health related points in defence of keeping the Central Experimental Farm intact.

1.     The 60 acres in question are one of, if not the, most scientifically important parts of the entire Central Experimental Farm. One overseas partner has argued that the land is not of national significance—rather it is of overwhelming international significance. The research on the 60 acres is part of an international program studying the effects of climate change on agriculture and agriculture on climate change. The data obtained through these experiments are key to understanding the public health impacts of climate change especially in regards to food security.
2.     Further, this research examines the efficacy of till and no-till practices on soil health and composition. Over-tilling of land has recently been pointed to as a cause of severe flooding in the United Kingdom. Long term research on the ability of different agricultural techniques to adapt to changing environmental conditions is essential to preventing public health emergencies that severe floods can cause by increasing the ability of soil to retain rain water and reduce the chance of dangerous run off from entering the domestic water supply—which can lead to outbreaks of e.coli and other deadly diseases.
3.     The location of a hospital is an important decision. There has been no public debate on the location of a new campus and the Land Transfer Matrix employed by TOH to pick the 60 acres in question was 7 years old in 2014, was previously rejected by the Conservative government in 2008, and contains a number of weaknesses. These range from minor (frequent spelling mistakes, misallocation of who actually owns the various parcels) to serious (lack of a nuanced ranking system, unweighted criteria, untested and unexplored assumptions regarding the impact on AAFC). It is in the interest of public health to make sure the decision on where a hospital is located is made in a rigorous manner.

I argue that these points combine to expose serious problems with the decision to allocate 60 acres experimental fields for construction. The disregard of the Farm’s long term management plan and the lengths the Ottawa Hospital continues to go to avoid talking about its land choice (let alone how the Federal government put up no challenge to it’s choice, despite the NCC’s legislative responsibility to protect federal lands, especially heritage sites, in the national capital region) point to a rotten deal made with little oversight.

The public health angle just emphasizes that the Hospital has not made its case. 

For those interested in the 60 acres, you can see an incomplete list of my previous articles here and here. Also see the Greenspace Alliance's site for more information. Heritage Ottawa, a registered charity, has taken the lead in fighting the transfer, and you can make a donation to support their efforts through their website by including "CEF"  in the Commemorative Donation Details field when you make your donation.