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Editorial: A valuable question

The Irish writer and humorist Oscar Wilde once famously noted that a cynic is one who “… knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

Wilde wrote those words in the play “Lady Windemere’s Fan” more than 125 years ago, as a rebuttal to what he saw as the growing cynicism of the day. He saw a society that increasingly viewed non-economic values to be unimportant.

When the cynics rule, all that counts are dollars and cents.

In the intervening years, little has changed, save perhaps the situation becoming even more pronounced. We live in the age of the ‘realist’ as the cynics like to style themselves.

But that way ignores a host of non-economic issues that have value, or even shared issues that may even have economic value in the end, but lack an incentive for any one party to pursue.

It’s why we have organizations like co-operatives, clubs and industry associations. The question of industry associations is a particularly interesting one for the agriculture sector.

On the farmer side, there’s a host of groups aiming to get farmers to work together to address their shared interests. Be it variety development, agronomic research or policy questions, there are inevitably large and intractable issues that any single farmer couldn’t possibly address.

It is a systemic way of addressing the collective action problem, as academics have long referred to it, and it works, albeit imperfectly.

There will always be some who don’t want to contribute, but who will happily lap up the benefits of the work — what’s known as “free riders.” There are ways to guard against that, but they’re controversial and often politically untenable — non-refundable checkoffs being the most obvious.

Here we run into the dynamic of compelled membership, where many say they don’t want to be forced to be a member of any club. That’s understandable, but that also likely means some valuable and important work won’t be done.

Typically industry, a bit further up the value chain, doesn’t have quite the same sort of perennial struggle with these issues.

They have fewer and more sophisticated members who recognize they have what are known as “pre-competitive” interests that can be addressed more efficiently and effectively as a group and they band together to get the job done. There are more than a few in the agriculture sector that we’re all familiar with.

There’s the Western Grain Elevator Association, for example, which is the voice of Western Canada’s grain handlers. You’ve no doubt read its commentary on issues like rail service, transportation legislation and grain inspection on these pages over the years.

There’s the Canadian Malt Barley Technical Centre, whose 25 members are, according to its website “… comprised of players along the value chain including breeders, producer associations, provincial governments, seed distributors, line companies, malting companies, breweries and exporters.”

The list could — and does — go on and on. At the top of that list, as the flagship value chain organization, has for many years sat the Canola Council of Canada.

It is a group that encompasses canola growers, processors, and exporters. On its website it bills itself as “… the first industry association in Canada to encompass all links in the value chain.”

Recently however, a few of those links appear to have weakened, in particular the major grain companies.

Winnipeg-based Richardson International captured most of the headlines in early 2018 when it “pulled out” of the canola council. Later it was revealed that Viterra had also been mulling a similar move, but opted, for the time being to stay the course.

Both companies expressed similar concerns with efficiency, redundancy and questioned whether they were getting value for money — quite a lot of money, as it turns out, since both companies were among the group’s largest benefactors.

Those are fair questions, especially for a mature crop such as canola. In the early days it might have been necessary to perennially remind growers to seed early and shallow, but one suspects farmers have long ago absorbed that message.

In fairness to the canola council, it would seem it has listened to the concerns and responded.

But there are always going to be challenges for the sector, and a big one has recently popped up, as China closed the door to canola shipments from Richardson citing quality concerns. The industry, including the canola council, has responded vigorously.

It turns out that Richardson remains a member of the group, if not a funder, and the council has sprung to the company’s defence.

One wonders if Canada’s largest agribusiness might be rethinking the value of such organizations, despite their cost.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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