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
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
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.
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 email@example.com