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In the world today, the first may be lost

May 26, 2008 - In this world, nothing is so simple as to be black and white. Take the agri-food industry for example. From where I sit, the accurate picture of agriculture offered to those in  urban centres like Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal  has been long-obscured by a series of issues that will never allow for a singular, one-stop shopping approach to understanding and enlightenment.


In this world, nothing is so simple as to be black and white.

Take the agri-food industry for example. From where I sit, the accurate picture of agriculture offered to those in  urban centres like Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal  has been long-obscured by a series of issues that will never allow for a singular, one-stop shopping approach to understanding and enlightenment. In the course of 24 hours, there are too many news stories, events and other meaningless trivia to easily digest the complexities of food production in Canada. Supply management, the workings of the CBoT and the CWB, the widening disconnect between farm producers and the consumer, the unwritten (but undeniable) cheap food policy of the federal and provincial governments, foreign subsidies, the public’s inability to grasp basic scientific principles, the long-term cost of cheap food imports, pesticide bans and food safety regulations in Canada and other countries, all make ‘simple’ an impossibility.

Then of course, there is the ‘food versus fuel’ debate and the growing appetite of the developing middle class in India and China (among other nations). These two swells form opposite ends of the same bone now being gnawed upon by the pundits of the mainstream media. They chew on it continuously, then stand back and wonder why there is no meat to the issue, before descending on it once again in the hopes that they will find some morsel they missed on the first go around.
  
It never ceases to amaze me the lengths -or lack thereof  -that media types will go to in an attempt to parrot what little they have learned, particularly without understanding the fundamentals of a subject. They tackle the pricing structure of food in North America, yet conveniently omit the combined impacts of commodity speculators, millers and processors, rising transportation costs and the generous mark-up at retail outlets. They warn of ‘skyrocketing prices’, yet fail to acknowledge the fact that ‘Food Freedom Day’, the day on which the average Canadian has earned enough money to buy his or her groceries for the entire year, occurred in 2008 on February 3rd.  In past years, the day has been marked on February 7th or 8th; in 2008, it took just 34 days.  Granted, the earlier date can be accounted for by the higher increases in disposable income relative to the price of food.
 
But instead of doing what is necessary -and more difficult but thorough  -the headlines warn of hunger and devastation, and how Western Canadian grain farmers will soon “see more Mercedes dealerships being built in rural areas” (The Globe & Mail, Feb. 26, 2008).
 
This is the sad truth about the urban media, in spite of the fact that they have improved, albeit slightly, in the past year. Then again, the media improved because they had no choice (there was little room for them to worsen). The world of agriculture was thrust on to the world stage, seemingly overnight, so for the media to ignore the need to expand their shockingly limited grasp of the agri-food industry would be to admit to a level of incompetence not seen since the Walkerton tragedy in 2000. Hindsight may be 20/20, and we know now that agriculture may have played a role in Walkerton, but as an industry it did not pull the trigger, nor was it one of the bullets. But it clearly showed just how little the media (mostly based in Toronto and the other larger urban centres) knew about agriculture and how quickly the daily outlets will ignore facts in favour of selling newspapers and winning market share.
 
Has it improved?
 
Well, a little, depending on your source. A piece in the Toronto Star (Agriculture’s new ‘golden age’ -Mar. 1/08) provided a fairly accurate representation of the agri-food industry and rising commodity prices. But near the end of the piece came this brain cramp:  “Even farmers, the principal beneficiaries of high food prices…..”.

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One step forward, two steps back; advance and retreat, advance and retreat….
 
The notion that growers had yet to plant a new crop to take advantage of high commodity -not food  -prices, much less harvest it, was lost on most reporters. The notion that Saskatchewan wheat farmers do not harvest loaves of bread directly from the field may have been a surprise to some -as it likely is to many consumers.
    
It all just seems too hard for people to struggle through the realities of the subject.
   
And the question I always ask regarding the Toronto or Vancouver media is that if they do such an abysmal job on agriculture, who knows if they are accurately grasping the complexities of health care, education, science and technology or the world of politics. The latest pop star to go into rehab or the manic behaviour of another sports icon can be captured on film or in print down to the last detail or statistic, but getting an accurate reflection of the farmers’ share of the food dollar or their overall contributions to society is often asking too much.
   
It should not be this difficult.
   
In this day and age, with so much information available, literally at your fingertips, there is no reason for misinterpretations and erroneous reporting.
   
We all deserve better.