David Orchard
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An edited version of this article was published in the National Post, March 27, 2001

Bankrupting the farm

By David Orchard

Over a year ago on this page I predicted that without corrective action, we would see a worsening of the farm crisis. Since then over 22,000 more farmers have given up farming.

During the past decade, Canadian farmers' net income adjusted for inflation, has fallen more than 50%. In Saskatchewan the drop is 90%; net farm income last year was 10% of the 1989 figure. The countryside is being depopulated, railway tracks ripped up, grain elevators torn down and rural communities devastated.

The federal minister of Agriculture stated recently that any farmer with sales under $75,000 should "make a decision." This means that many more farmers, over half of those remaining in fact, are being told to leave the industry, a disaster which would turn rural Canada into a desolate zone of giant industrial farms.

Canada's agriculture policy can only be described as bankrupt. The Liberals have unilaterally dismantled the country's agriculture research and support systems, disarming farmers and placing them at a substantial disadvantage in world markets. To blunt the outcry, the government is handing out on a limited, ad hoc basis, cheques to farmers, which amount to a fraction of the amounts it has cut from farm programs. (The Liberals have cut the federal agricultural budget by almost by 50%, dumping the costs directly onto farm families. For example, the 1995 abolition of the historic Crow's Nest Pass agreement, once guaranteed to farmers "in perpetuity," has tripled freight costs, an annual increase of about $15,000 per average western grain farm.) At the same time, the government is stamping its feet at the agricultural policies of the Europeans and Americans demanding, without effect, that they "stop subsidizing."

Instead of whining about our competitors, Canada should simply restore its farm support with the pledge to our competitors and trade partners that our support will be phased out at such time as, and in lock step with, reciprocal reductions on their part. This action will put Canadian farmers back on a level playing field and at the same time give the Canadian government the negotiating strength to actually achieve results on the international stage.

The shopworn excuse that the Canadian treasury is incapable of competing with that of Europe and the U.S. is inaccurate. Historically Canada maintained a world class agriculture system, including its long term freight commitments, without ruining the country's finances.

On the health and food safety front, there is a growing worldwide consumer reaction to genetically modified (GM) food. Europe will no longer import GM grains for human consumption; other customers are balking. Yet Canada continues to pour hundreds of millions into promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the detriment of all other agriculture policy.

With the introduction and promotion of Monsanto's "Round-up ready canola," about two thirds of prairie canola acreage is transgenetic. Cross pollination with conventional canola has contaminated the entire canola crop, resulting in the loss of the European market for all our canola and a subsequent drop in Canadian canola prices.

With virtually all its eggs in the GM basket, Canada has become the world's third largest producer of GM crops, a product fewer and fewer wish to purchase. This reckless promotion of an unproven technology is hurting Canada's farmers. By contrast, Brazil, for example, has refused to allow the commercial release of GM seeds, is now advertising its food exports as GMO free and is beating us in world markets.

GM foods are not, as the government argues, cheaper, safer or more nutritious. 75% of GM seeds are designed for a single trait, pesticide tolerance, to enable larger sales of herbicides and pesticides by the companies producing the transgenetic seeds -- and a growing legion of consumers are saying no thanks.

Ignoring the customer is a costly business, yet Canada's government is now planning to allow the introduction of GM wheat, which will extend the consumer resistance, and resulting market devastation, into our world famous wheat markets. Farm organizations across North America, including the Canadian Wheat Board, have asked that GM wheat not be released commercially until all our customers indicate they are prepared to purchase it, yet the government appears set to force it on the industry.

Due to a number of factors -- sustainability, growing consumer health consciousness, BSE (mad cow disease) and increasing problems of industrial farming -- the fastest growing agricultural sector in the western world (20-40% annually) is that of organic production and consumption.

Organic farming, which means production of food without poisonous chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, artificial fertilizers or genetic modification, has the advantage of being far less damaging to the environment, the soil and the consumer's health. (There has been no mad cow disease in animals raised organically.) Input costs to the organic farmer are lower and the production receives substantially higher returns. A recent comprehensive survey of organic farmers in Ontario revealed that less than 15% saw profit margins as a concern; their products are giving them an adequate return from the market. Yet, despite rapidly growing worldwide demand there is virtually no research or promotion being done in Canada in the field. There is not even a degree granting course in organic agriculture in the entire country.

It is quite clear that organic farming is the way of the future and Canada with its international reputation as a clean country is ideally positioned to exploit this opportunity in markets in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. The demand for Canadian organic agricultural products currently far outstrips the supply, yet our government has completely missed the boat, its agriculture support and promotion linked exclusively to the outmoded chemical and biotech food industries which are rapidly declining in consumer confidence.

A quick, thorough reorientation and updating of agriculture policy based on consumer demand and long term sustainability is required. This means a moratorium on the release of new GMOs, backing away from GM canola, soybeans, corn, and potatoes, introducing transition programs to organic production, sponsoring research oriented to the problems of non-chemical agriculture and energetic promotion of Canada's chemical free and non-GM food products to waiting markets. These steps, combined with restoration of our basic agricultural support infrastructure, would go a long way to put Canada's agriculture sector back on its feet.

David Orchard is the author of The Fight for Canada -- Four Centuries of Resistance to American Expansionism and was runner-up to Joe Clark in the 1998 federal Progressive Conservative leadership contest. He farms in Borden, Saskatchewan, and can be reached at tel (306) 664-8443 or by e-mail at davidorchard@sasktel.net

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