Canada’s Agricultural Policy Needs To Turn Inward

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“We have a continuation of government policies that offer more loans and more debt to farmers so they can continue to farm. That is completely unsustainable.”

Canadian agriculture is in a crisis, but is now facing a turning point, says Wendy Holm, an economist and journalist from Bowen Island, British Columbia.

Holm told delegates to last month’s Agriculture and Food Council of Alberta meeting that she feels a sense of optimism for Canadian agriculture, but is also concerned concern about the state of the industry and how it has deteriorated over the last 20 years.

Before the-mid 1980s, Canadians had a history of respect for agriculture, Holm said.

“Farmers were the people that built and developed our country. They were the people that provided food and there was a lot of strength in co-operation,” she said. “Farmers were the pillars of our communities particularly in Western Canada.”

Holm said things began to change dramatically in the mid-1980s. Globalization and changes in trade and relationships resulted in a policy crisis for agriculture, which led to a farm economic crisis. She said the Canada-U. S. and North American Free Trade Agreements resulted in a reduction in sovereignty which created a drop in farm policy support in Canada and weakened Canada’s Competition Act.

Holm said Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) national farm support statistics show Canada’s dropped 36 per cent from 1986 to 2006, more than many of Canada’s trading partners. During the period when the global marketplace developed, Canada cut its support to agriculture.

Other troubling factors have been the high increase in farm operating costs along with a decrease in net farm income, said Holm.

“We have a continuation of government policies that offer more loans and more debt to farmers so they can continue to farm. That is completely unsustainable.”

Meanwhile the amount of off-farm work required to keep the farm running has increased dramatically, and the average age of farm operators has increased as the number of younger farmers has declined.

FOOD ON THE PUBLIC RADAR

Holm does see some encouraging factors in the wake of the farm crisis.

“The public has finally woken up to the concerns with respect to food,” she said. She sees this crisis as a time of tremendous opportunity for farmers, policy-makers, local governments and consumers to repair the system and re-establish the respect for agriculture.

“If we don’t do something about improving the situation under which farmers operate in Canada, we are not going to have farmers operating in Canada and it’s simply that simple,” Holm said.

Consumers are concerned about food safety and are growing aware of the quality of food that they are purchasing, said Holm. There is a growing awareness about food sustainability and security and what should be done to make sure that food systems are sustainable.

Holm suggested that Canadians have a right to safe, local, nutritious and affordable food and sustainable food and that an adoption of these beliefs into a national food policy would go a long way if it was tied with work that needs to be done at the production level. “We need to look at issues of food security for a disaster plan. For example, how long could the city of Calgary operate with the food it has if there was a disaster where the borders were closed, and if the food supply was cut?” she asked.

Increasing the amount of local food available reduces the risk of crop failures and market failures externally and adds strength to community economic development, she said.

There has also been an increased interest in using local foods and the environmental footprint of a produced commodity.

“As opportunities for urban and close-to-urban agriculture develop and are supported, the consumer becomes much more engaged in the concept of the production of food whether it is there or on a cattle ranch 200 miles away,” Holm said.

“The big part of this is relationship. The consumer wants to feel a relationship with the person who is producing food,” Holm said.

The relationship developed between the producer and consumer will be one of the primary drivers. “When you have public engagement, that public engagement then starts to drive political will and political will turns into policy respect, which turns into economic sustainability and that whole system starts to improve,” she said. “We need to come to the point where we say as Canadians, we have the right to walk our own course, to define our own path in regards to policies affecting the production of food in our country.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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