Farmers need real support

The following editorial was published in the Guelph Mercury as a guest column July 18, 2008:


Our provincial government recently announced four million dollars of funding to put more Ontario food on our tables by supporting farmers markets and roadside produce stands. As a consumer in this era of food safety scares, environmental concerns and escalating costs, there is something very reassuring to me about buying high quality food produced by our farmers. The fact that by doing so we’re also supporting Ontario’s farming economy and helping to keep jobs in our province is an added feel good.

But as someone who works for and on behalf of farmers, I can’t help but wish that the government would choose to support Ontario’s farming sector in a more meaningful, long term way than just providing marketing dollars here and there. Not that these dollars aren’t needed or important, but so much coming down the legislative pipe these days seems on track to ensure we’ll eventually have no one left to grow our food – leaving us dependent on others to feed us and leaving me to wonder how serious the government really is about truly supporting farmers.

One such example is the recently passed provincial pesticide ban. Although farmers were granted an exemption, there are no assurances that this exemption is permanent. Pesticides are one tool among many we need to help keep our food abundant and affordable and are in fact essential in a world where fewer and fewer farmers are responsible for feeding more and more people.

The Clean Water Act aims to protect our ground and surface water supply, much of which lies on or under farm land. Potential new rules may severely restrict or even eliminate agricultural activity on productive farmland, yet there is no provision for compensation for affected farmers and landowners whose livelihoods – and ability to produce food – will be impacted.

The Endangered Species Act involves efforts to protect species at risk in Ontario. Just one identified endangered species can mean the loss of large areas of productive farmland, all at the expense of the farmer under today’s conditions.

On a certain level, the intent behind all these pieces of legislation is valid. Everybody wants to make sure their health is protected, their water is safe and the environment is preserved for future generations. So given that this is all for the greater good, shouldn’t everyone – not just farmers – share equally in the costs?

Farmers are committed to doing the right thing – and have been doing so voluntarily for decades with outstanding results. More than twenty years ago farmers developed and implemented the Grower Pesticide Safety Course, where every farmer using pesticides and every vendor selling the products must be certified in their proper handling, use and storage every five years. This program has led to a 52% reduction in pesticide use in Ontario since it was implemented.

Ontario farmers also helped create the first Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) initiative in Canada in 1993, where farmers voluntarily identify and address the environmental benefits and risks on their farms. More than 70% of Ontario farm families have participated in the EFP program and have invested over $100 million of their own money into on-farm environmental improvements through this program alone.

I think what Ontario’s farmers really need is a supportive and permanent regulatory structure that will provide the stability and sustainability they need in order to feed us and to ensure the future survival of this important sector. Agriculture, after all, is second only to the automotive industry in Ontario in terms of economic importance. And people all around the world – not just here at home – look to Canada as a supplier of top quality food.

Farmers face enough challenges in their businesses – globalization, weather and sky rocketing costs to name just a few – that we shouldn’t be placing additional roadblocks in their way.

Let’s truly make food and farming a priority.

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