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Whither Canada?

Some say Canada's good reputation as a food producer fizzled

Is Canada still the producer of the world’s best food products, or is it time to rebrand Canada?

That’s the point Camrose, Alta. farmer Gerald Pilger made in a recent column in Country Guide where he claimed the country’s reputation has fizzled in recent years.

The purpose of the column was to get farmers to think about what they’re doing and brand they should be aiming for, Pilger said in an interview Sept. 19.

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“Farmers are you contributing to that best wheat, or best crop in the world brand that we’re still trying to sell?” he said. “If you’re not, should you change your practices, or should we be honest and get rid of the brand that we have? If we get rid of that brand what should we sell our wheat on?”

Canadian wheat has been sold on quality for more than a century. Its reputation for top-quality milling wheat goes back to Western Canada’s first wheat shipment from Winnipeg to Toronto in 1876, according to Allan Levine’s book, The Exchange, 100 years of trading grain in Winnipeg.

The buyer, R.C. Steele, purchased 857 bushels of bagged Red Fife wheat. Steele, who had purchased wheat in Minnesota, said Manitoba’s was superior and he would’ve bought 5,000 bushels had it been available.

By 1910 Western Canada’s wheat quality superiority was locked in with the development of Marquis, an improved, earlier-maturing variety that set the benchmark for the world’s best milling wheat for three-quarters of the 20th century.

Pilger writes that in his father’s day Canada was not only considered part of the “breadbasket of the world,” it was known for its premium products because of Canada’s pristine environment.

“Fresh air, clean water, and our cold winters limited insects and diseases in the crop,” Pilger wrote in his column. “And while most farmers still believe it to be true, it is questionable if our customers and consumers still believe this. Fusarium, blackleg, and ergot have cost us sales. GMO (genetically modified organisms) technology, while highly endorsed by Canadian farmers, has limited our marketing opportunities to Europe and other premium markets.”

Due to repeated grain-shipping backlogs Canadian grain buyers no longer see Canada as a reliable supplier, Pilger wrote.

On top of that, consumers are complaining about glyphosate residues in their food and increasingly western Canadian farmers are growing lower-quality wheat varieties, mostly because they yield more.

It doesn’t matter that glyphosate levels found in food are well within the safety limits allowed by regulators, Pilger said.

“We have to listen to the consumer saying, ‘We do not want the residues of glyphosate in any of our food…’” he said.

Pre-harvest glyphosate needn’t be banned, Pilger said. It just needs to be applied properly.

“Farmers are still using glyphosate to ‘even up their crop’ (ripening) as most put it,” he said. “The minute you’re using it (glyphosate) as a desiccant you’re going to be leaving residue in some of the grain.

“(T)his practice is… just adding fuel that we’re going to lose the most important herbicide that we’ve ever had. I could not zero till where I live without glyphosate for burn-off.”

Around eight years ago some wheat customers started complaining Canadian milling wheats had less gluten strength than usual — an important component in bread making. After extensive consultations the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) responded by tightening the quality specifications for Canada’s premier Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) and Canada Prairie Spring Red (CPS) wheat classes.

It also created a new class — Canada Northern Hard Red — which took in some of the CWRS and CPS wheats that didn’t meet the new higher standards. Several American Dark Northern Spring wheats are in the class as well.

In a perfect world, where class segregation can be strictly guaranteed, these might be good changes, Pilger said.

“There is going to be intermingling of grains unless they’re grown under IP (identity preserved) and put into a container,” he said. “You’re going to have some intermingling. Grain companies are going to do their best to make the most profit they can, which means we sell at the minimum requirement that the buyer wants.”

Meanwhile, farmers are on the one hand growing more lower-quality, higher-yielding wheats and on the other complaining the variety has been transferred to a lower-quality class, Pilger said.

“We basically have backed away from the best quality in the world,” he said.

“So what is our brand going to be? Are we just going to be producers of the cheapest wheat you can get? OK, fair enough, but I don’t think we’re going to compete for the long term on selling the cheapest wheat.”

Many other wheat producers, including in parts of the former Soviet Union, already have higher yields and a much lower cost of production than Canada, he said.

Canada needs to keep working to preserve its quality reputation, but Canada’s reputation is intact, according to Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada.

“There are some threats to that,” Dahl said in an interview Sept. 11. “I think the transportation issue is a threat. We hear that. Yes, there is increased focus on things like MRLs (maximum residue levels for pesticides in food), but we have a really good story to tell when it comes to things like sustainability and the environmental side of Canadian agriculture. That’s part of our reputation.

“I think we have a very strong reputation and that’s backed by our export numbers.”

While American and Australian wheat exports continue to decline, Canadian wheat exports are slowly increasing, he added.

Canada’s grain industry is aware of consumer concerns about pesticide residues, Dahl said. That’s why Cereals Canada, the Canola Council of Canada and Pulse Canada are promoting farmers follow label directions when using pesticides through their ‘Keep it Clean’ initiative.

Glyphosate, a non-selective, systemic herbicide, is not a desiccant and shouldn’t be used as one, Dahl said.

“It’s a tool for fall weed control.

“The clean concept is a big part of our brand and we know that from doing research and asking the question, ‘Why do you buy Canadian?’” Dahl said. “That is an important part of who we are. So yes, we can make the claim… our soil organic matter is growing over time, our erosion is slowing, we’re using less fuel to produce more wheat. It’s a good news story, it really is.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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