Our national mandatory program for age verification for cattle needs to be put on hold until there is careful study and roundtable discussions with farmers. Governments need to talk to as many actual farmers as possible, not merely to organizations that claim to represent farmers and to the so-called industry leaders.
The federal standing committee on agriculture needs to choose a representative from each federal party and take the age verification consultations to each province and many smaller communities in those provinces, not just the large cities. committee members must not merely listen to farmers’ concerns, rather, committee members must work to understand those concerns and then act upon them. Legislators also need to heed farmers’ input on how to solve the cattle price and income crisis.
Before farmers are forced to comply with new and costly regulations such as mandatory age verification or birth registry of calves, farmers’ income crisis must be solved. Since the outbreak of BSE in 2003, prices to farmers have been on a sharp downward curve.
Agencies such as the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency (CCIA), which are to provide traceability for livestock to farm of origin and magically improve the farmers’ bottom line, have done nothing for incomes other than further depress that income with additional expenses – with no benefit to the farmers’ bottom line. Tags cost 75 cents to $3.50 per tag, plus the labour to tag the animals and maintain the records.
Coupled with increasingly concentrated marketplace ownership by two major beef packers, it’s clear that the first priority should not be mandatory age verification, but instead measures to fix the sharp decline in prices paid to Canadian cattlemen for their livestock.
Instead, the problem is getting worse, as packers get bigger. Post-BSE acquisitions have included Better Beef, Carvel foods, and Lakeside Packers, among others, and also included plant closers, such as XL in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
Now, before we go off and start the hysterical and often frenzied call for a free market, let’s actually see if one exists. Is there a free market when two packers control over 85 per cent of federal fed cattle slaughter? This is far from a free market (or even a fair market). Rather, it is quite simply a captive market.
How beneficial would age verification be to the packers and the retailers vs. the farmers and consumers? Since age verification has been mandatory in Alberta, calf prices have plummeted and unverified calves are now used as an excuse by buyers to further depress prices in an already depressed market. Age-verified beef has enjoyed a premium paid for by the consumer, yet when age verification was voluntary in Alberta, no premiums were paid to farmers with age-verified calves (vs. non-verified calves). The consumers have seen continued price increases at the retailer level with no guarantee the product they are paying for is even of Canadian farm origin.
It is interesting to note that the federal government has come to the aid of the large corporate auto makers with many billions of dollars in bailouts where there are an estimated 10 million buyers of their product. But the government has provided no equivalent aid to farmers who are in the worst crisis since the Great Depression, and who have only two buyers of their product, yet millions of consumers.
Export markets have not worked as a success story for farmers’ incomes either. It is time to rethink the Canadian agriculture model for Canada’s farmers and consumers alike. Let’s put age verification on hold until the cost versus benefit to farmers and consumers alike is understood. Instead, let’s work on issues of importance to Canada’s farmers: getting a fair return for labour and investment and a fair, sovereign, sustainable local food system for Canadian consumers.
And let’s quit telling Canadians their food is cheap because it is not; there are hidden costs and subsidies: farmers working off their farms, Canadian taxpayer dollars paid out through subsidies, farm suicides, declining rural towns, declining soil fertility. Our food is not cheap and our children and grandchildren will pay the price of a failed agriculture policy.
Neil Peacock Region 8 Director
National Farmers Union