Our agriculture industry is at a crisis point

The word crisis is heard often at the moment. Unfortunately, it seems to be heard most often in conjunction with two other words: agriculture and farmers. In a country as wealthy and as entrenched in farming as ours, to me, there’s something fundamentally wrong with this picture.

There’s the dire situation of Canada’s hog farmers. They’ve been hit with a series of problems – a growing focus on alternative fuels that is driving up feed costs, restrictive US country of origin labeling regulations and global fallout over H1N1 that has lowered demand for their product.

The crisis is no less significant in horticulture, where farmers are struggling with reduced returns and skyrocketing costs. Fruit and vegetable production is very labour-intensive and when Ontario’s minimum wage increase is fully implemented by 2010, it will cost farmers at least an additional $70 million annually. As well, the world wide financial crunch has distorted global markets, resulting in dumping of products like peppers and peaches, leaving Canadian growers unable to compete against artificially low prices.

So what’s the answer to these crises in farming?

In my opinion, our federal and provincial governments have a choice to make. Agriculture as a whole is at a crossroads and our political leaders must decide what kind of value to place on Ontario or Canadian grown food.

Do we as a country want to focus on food self-sufficiency? Do we value food safety, environmental responsibility and strong rural communities? Or do we simply want the cheapest food available and be happy buying it from wherever we can get it for the lowest price?

At the moment, it seems to me that the focus is on the latter. Yes, one can argue that consumers are simply being more frugal during this time of economic restraint, but this trend began developing long before the global economy went into a tailspin.

Our governments are putting a lot of money into the promotion of local foods, yet at the same time, they are also consistently putting costly new regulations in place that make it even harder for farmers to remain price competitive. And unfortunately for farmers, these added costs aren’t ones they can just pass on to the market place – most buyers will just opt to bring in a lower priced product from somewhere else. The growing number of US pork products in our supermarkets is just one example that proves that point.

If our goal is to maintain a sustainable and profitable farming sector, government should develop some long term risk management programs that will provide farmers with tools to survive the inevitable challenges that come with farming in a global economy.

There will always be weather problems, competition from other countries, currency fluctuations and price swings for inputs, but a sustainable business risk management program will help eliminate the seemingly ongoing call for disaster relief programs and bailouts that have plagued agriculture for decades.

As consumers we have a responsibility here as well. No matter how many market research surveys or opinion polls we respond to where we declare that we would prefer to buy Canadian or Ontario and of course we’d be prepared to pay a little bit more to do so, in practice that is usually not the case.

At the end of the day, most of us vote with our pocketbooks and all our lofty principles about supporting our farmers and our economy fly right out the window if we can save a few cents a pound at the grocery store.

The crisis in agriculture is real and we can’t ignore it. If we want our future generations to enjoy the benefits of homegrown Canadian agriculture – like environmental stewardship and a high quality food supply – it needs to be addressed and changes will have to be made. The choice of what those changes will be is up to us – as voters and as consumers.

This editorial was published in the Guelph Mercury on August 27, 2009.

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