Agriculture Is A “Backwater” Enterprise

Now that food seems to be on the public-policy radar, the think-tanks of the nation are anxious to demonstrate their expertise on the subject. The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is the latest example with Canadian Agriculture and Food A Growing Hunger for Change, by Larry Martin and Kate Stiefelmeyer. The paper does not state it, but they are both with the George Morris Centre, an agricultural policy think-tank in Guelph, Ont.

The study came to our attention through Neil Reynolds, a columnist at theGlobe and Mail,who lauds the paper and concludes that All in all, government farm policy has turned Canadian agriculture into a backwater enterprise that drags down the larger Canadian economy.

Reynolds has the description right. That s pretty much what the paper says.

Whether the paper has it right is another matter. Reading through it reveals a collection of groundless generalizations and outright errors. Much of it is made up of a questionable analysis of how Canadian primary productivity is lagging the competition s, and that this could be somehow repaired by a change in policy.

It s hard to know where to start.

Canada is one of the few nations on the earth not to experience water shortages. This will come as a bit of a surprise to Prairie farmers who tell jokes about the trees following the dogs around. However, we are told that Canada has nine per cent of the world s renewable freshwater supply. Apparently Prairie farmers should all be buying irrigation pivots.

We re told they are also failing to adopt other improvements, because the regulatory system discourages the adoption of new technologies at the farm level.

Just what regulation is discouraging farmers from adopting such technology as zero till, air seeders, GPS, GM varieties, intensive rotational grazing, robotic milkers, and so on?

The paper tries to underline the alleged productivity deficit with some misleading and downright sloppy analysis comparing U.S. and Canadian yield increases, such as Saskatchewan wheat and barley against Iowa corn.

Comparing yields of two crops with different photosynthetic potential grown in two different regions is a stretch. Choosing one which can be easily hybridized (corn) versus those that cannot (wheat and barley) is misleading at best.

The paper attributes the apparent yield deficit to Canada s policy on plant breeders rights and the inability to get new varieties registered due in part to Kernel Visual Distinction.

New varieties aren t being registered? The authors obviously don t know that plant breeders rights and Kernel Visual Distinguishability, not Distinction, are two different things. Nor do they know that KVD was dropped on wheat in 2008 and on barley more than 10 years ago.

The analysis on feed grain export market share is interesting, if not amusing. Though the paper shows the growth in canola and pulse production since the end of the Crow, the authors don t seem to realize those acres had to come from somewhere. And they seem surprised there was not also an increase in barley production to provide cheap feed for hogs.

(R)esearch did not anticipate the fact that Canada would fall so far behind other jurisdictions in feed grain production.

It doesn t take an economics degree to know that although hog producers might like to buy it cheap, grain producers might not be so keen to sell it cheap and might grow canola and pulses instead.

However, the authors seem to think barley production could be higher if it wasn t for the system, but again demonstrate they haven t done their analytical homework. They say roughly 80 per cent of the acres are planted to malt varieties. This year it was 56 per cent. The implication is that malt varieties yield less. Last year the current recommended malt varieties in Alberta yielded 71 bushels per acre versus the provincial average of 67.

Livestock farmers are not spared accusations of inefficiency.

The authors present graphs showing the number of piglets weaned per sow and the average amount of milk produced per cow in Canada and the U.S. Their own graphs show that Canada s figures are consistently higher. Instead, we are told that Both (graphs) show that Canada had an advantage and has essentially lost it.

The authors obviously don t like certain aspects of the regulatory system. Fine. These are legitimate subjects for discussion. It s not legitimate to declare the whole system sick in order to prove the point, especially based on analysis that would get an undergraduate flunked on a term paper.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is proudly announcing that the opinion piece on the opposite page has been carried in six daily newspapers, and that theGlobecolumnist called the study an excellent even inspiring piece of work. Farm organizations should be inspired to ask for an apology.

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