Business & Policy
How to fix agriculture
June 23, 2009
By Ralph Pearce
Every once in a while this industry provides an opportunity to break bread with someone of extraordinary character. My chance came when I had dinner with Bette Jean Crews, the current president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.
Every once in a while this industry provides an opportunity to break bread with someone of extraordinary character. My chance came one evening in the middle of June when I had dinner with Bette Jean Crews, the current president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. Bette Jean’s a great and wonderful person, and someone I’m very fortunate to count as a friend. During the course of the meal, we talked about our respective jobs, updated each other on our family goings-on, and of course, talked seriously about the state of the agri-food industry.
It was actually at the end of the evening that Bette Jean said, “What agriculture needs is a reminder of what we value in farming; we need to figure out why farming has fallen. Why is it that it’s no longer important to most people – and it’s not because of the global economy or that my grandmother used to farm and that I don’t.”
Unfortunately, in my cold, cynical and sour heart, I said, “I know exactly what’s caused this backspin: abundance and convenience.”
In this country, we have plenty of food and an insatiable demand for convenience, which our food industry has pandered to, happily, quickly and to its detriment. That has led to this belief in self-determination and self-aggrandisement: I am the most important person in the world, therefore I am who the food companies and fast food outlets cater to. And it’s self-perpetuating: the more companies cater to those demands, the more demanding people become.
It would be easy to dismiss someone like this as merely a citizen of Toronto, but the truth is, he or she could be your next-door neighbour whether you live in Calgary, Moncton or if you’re strolling through downtown Carberry, Manitoba. It might even be you. The fact is, we are a selfish lot, here in the Western world (and if you need a quick lesson in how awful we can be, try sitting patiently in a traffic jam or standing in line at an event, and watch the rams as they jostle for position, trying to get ahead of everyone else with their “me-first” belief structure).
Life is too easy
So the question in all of this is: “If abundance and convenience are the key issues, what will fix this situation?”
Not that I want it, but the best wake-up call – and I’ve heard this before – would be a sustained global food crisis. Not one born of the inane prattling of the media or as a result of a bunch of brokers trading commodities seven times before actually making the buy. Nor do I define a global food shortage as having a hard time finding strawberries or romaine lettuce in January. When I say “Global Food Crisis,” I’m talking about walking into the local Loblaws or Sobey’s, and NOT finding everything you want, be it bags of potatoes, loaves of bread, or shelves filled with Fruit Roll-ups and Pizza Pops. Good food or garbage food, not having quick, easy and cheap access would be very upsetting to the majority of people, from corporate executives to middle-class soccer moms to those unfortunate enough to be on welfare.
It might be enough to drive a little more attention and appreciation towards the farmers, but it wouldn’t come without a considerable amount of struggle and strife, including a few brawls at grocery outlets. Our me-first attitude would bring that out in people in overwhelming degrees: if you threaten to use your car as a battering ram in rush hour, how far a stretch is it to use your shopping cart to knock down other consumers on their way to the same loaf of bread?
No more country homes
Now, I repeat my statement from above: I don’t want to see a global food crisis, but the truth is, it’s the only way left to raise the awareness and appreciation of the general public towards agriculture. And it would bring about an immediate moratorium on all building on arable land, be it industrial, commercial or residential. If you want to build a 5000-square-foot mansion in the country, head for the bogs of northwestern Ontario, or the shale knolls of Nova Scotia. But pave over farmland outside of Saskatoon or Kitchener-Waterloo? Not on your life, no matter how much money you have.
In the meantime, our agri-food sector is too bogged down with issues beyond the control of its primary producers. Low prices that are set in another country keep many growers from earning a decent living from farming. Environmental concerns are pushing farmers to spend more on nutrient management, pesticide and fertilizer reductions, and food safety protocols. Through it all, consumers want cleaner air, cleaner water and safer food, and they don’t care if farmers are going out of business trying to meet their selfish demands. They want, farmers provide, and that’s it, that’s the only equation that matters.
How to change that, I don’t know if there is a way, especially since there are so many voices within agriculture, all screaming to be heard while struggling against the demands of the consumer and our society.
What it comes down to is the ABC of Farming: Abundance, Benevolence and Convenience; we have too much food, our farmers are too nice and people are too accustomed to the convenience that’s been provided to them.
It is so wrong, so misguided, and so unnecessary.