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Down on the farm

Sweeping changes proposed for agriculture in Canada – too little, too late?

Make no mistakes, 2001 has not been an easy year for the majority of Canadian farmers.

Farmers in central Canada, from the western border of Manitoba to the eastern border of British Columbia, suffered through one of the worst droughts on record since the Great Depression.

Southern Ontario, one of the most agriculturally developed regions of Canada, eked through its worst drought in 50 years. Farmers estimate that between 20 and 25 per cent of crops have been lost, costing the province’s farmers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Orchard and blueberry growers on Canada’s East Coast have been stung by a more unusual problem – a lack of bees to pollinate crops – in addition to a cold spring and long periods without rain.

On the whole, there have been a variety of specific crop failures from PEI to British Columbia.

In addition, prices on many cash crops have dropped significantly as a result of competition with Third-World countries, and farmers are getting less for their wares on the international market and in domestic markets as shoppers opt for the cheaper, foreign grown, products.

While our farmers may not be able to control weather, they are desperate to gain more control over the global economic forces that somehow wound up in charge of their fates. Prior to the World Trade Organization’s Cairns Group Ministerial meeting in Brazil last week, they lobbied Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Lyle Vanclief to push for agricultural reform.

True to his word, he did.

"In the WTO agriculture negotiations, Canada’s objective is to achieve a substantial reduction or elimination of trade distorting domestic support, the elimination of export subsidies and significant improvements in market access," said Vanclief.

In other words, he said he would push for the establishment of a fair, market-oriented agricultural trading system.

In other, other words, that means a tomato at a Canadian supermarket would be priced according to a fair market value rather than the cut rate prices made possible by Third World labour, low dollars and government subsidies.

"During the last few days Canada put forward a strong case for the initiation of a wider set of negotiations which would make the achievement of a significant outcome on agriculture possible," he said.

The Cairns Group, which includes Australia, Agrentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Fiji, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Paraguay, the Philippines, Thailand, South Africa, and Uruguay – a group of mostly poorer and so-called Third World countries.

Most of these countries are sympathetic to Canada, and would likely benefit from some form of market-based price setting – our farmers won’t have to compete with poorer countries, and poorer countries will A) benefit from higher prices, and B) enjoy the fact that they no longer have to get into price wars with other poorer countries that leave everybody feeling taken.

It flies in the face of free trade, but we’re not talking about cars or electronics – most countries can’t grow vegetables all year round, people buy them every day, and they can’t sit around on the shelf and wait for higher prices.

Besides, while farms are coming increasingly under franchise control (whereby seed companies contract out farmers to grow crops and then pay the farmers when the crops are ready to go to market) most farmers don’t think of themselves as multinationals, don’t behave like multinationals, and shouldn’t have to play by the same set of rules. They’re feeding us, not selling us commodities.

Nationally, the provincial agricultural ministers and the federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Ministry are working on reforming the farming industry based on the input of farmers. Some of the initiatives are related to economics, while others are aimed at making Canada more competitive on the world markets.

You can comment on their proposed Agricultural Policy Framework at the federal Web site at until Oct. 31.

The basic goals of the plan are to:

• Build Canada’s reputation as a producer of safe, high-quality food;

• Enhance our agriculture and agri-food sector’s environmental performance;

• Improve our farmers’ ability to manage risk;

• Use science to help the sector seize economic opportunities;

• And develop programs to address farmers’ unique needs.

While farmers have relied on government subsidies in bad times, those subsidies are often misconstrued as an attempt to either protect domestic markets from foreign goods, which is considered bad trade, and to give our producers an unfair advantage over their foreign counterparts, which is also considered bad trade.

Whether anyone actually believes this or not we can’t know, but that’s the rhetoric that’s getting thrown in our faces every time we try to help our farmers out financially.

By reforming the farming industry is such a way that our farmers get the support they need without actual subsidies, we will essentially get clearance to trade our goods everywhere – or so the thinking goes.

The Agricultural Policy Framework is still in its infancy as government documents go, just five pages long and relatively free of legalese. It’s a basic plan that will set the course for agricultural form, which will be spelled out in law if the federal and provincial government, and the farmers, agree on the fine print.

"The agriculture sector must meet growing demands from Canadian and global consumers, who are seeking assurances about the safety of the food they eat and the environmental impact of how it is produced," reads the Agreement in Principle on an Action Plan for an Agricultural Policy Framework – the plan for a plan or the framework of a plan as drafted by the federal, provincial and territorial agriculture ministers after a June meeting in Whitehorse.

"Food safety and environmental issues are primarily about the health and safety of Canadians. However, they also potentially pose as significant a risk to the income of farmers as the traditional risks that safety nets are designed to address, such as prices, weather and disease. All of these risks need to be dealt with in an integrated fashion.

"Advances in science are creating new opportunities for the sector but are also accompanied by new challenges… The sector is facing change and is becoming an increasingly knowledge-intensive industry. At the same time, a demographic turnover will occur over the coming years as a significant number of farmers retire… For these reasons, it is important to articulate an agriculture policy that is comprehensive, integrated and ensures farmers have the tools to address issues, be competitive and capture opportunities in the areas of science, food safety and environmental stewardship."

Spelled out, the science and research initiative calls for more funding to improve environmental stewardship and improve food safety. Our advantage in natural resources, in our educated workforce, and in our public research will be used to advance agriculture through discovery and commercialization – branding Canadian produce as the best and backing that claim up with science.

The environment initiative calls for farmers and policy makers to recognize that the health of the agriculture sector is closely tied to the environment. That means taking direct action on farms, cleaning up practices and protecting the surrounding air, soil, water, and – as in the case of the disappearing bees in eastern Canada – biodiversity. The agreement in principle calls for an aggressive approach with indicators, targets, timetables and approaches decided over the next year. Farmers will be involved as stewards.

The food safety initiative is key to the plan to sell Canadian goods world-wide – recent epidemics like foot and mouth disease, mad cow disease, and salmonella-infected cantaloupes, compounded with global concerns over genetically modified foods have made consumers and countries wary over food exports.

Food safety starts on the farm, and that’s where this initiative will focus. That means consistent regulations, monitoring and enforcement from coast to coast that is recognized internationally, with ongoing programs to help farmers bring their farms up to standards.

In regards to safety nets, "Ministers recognize that there will always be circumstances where farmers are faced with unanticipated income declines, as a result of weather, disease and other factors beyond their control… Ministers agree that action in the areas of environmental stewardship and on-farm food safety and renewal will help to mitigate potential risks to the income of farmers, but safety nets will remain critical."

The ministers are recommending an analysis of safety net and disaster programs, the criteria used to decide when either program is necessary, and options to improve program performance.

After the last public commentary on Oct. 31, the ministers say they will spend the next year working on the plan. They’re working quickly because the agricultural sector simply can’t survive much longer with the status quo, and because the windows to trade are slowly closing due to public fears.

If you have any ideas, you know where to send them.