Modern Canadian agriculture faces an existential threat that farmers should be raising as an issue in the federal election.
That’s the view of two Manitoba-based agricultural leaders — Bill Campbell, president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP), Manitoba’s general farm organization, and Cereals Canada president Cam Dahl.
Both came to their positions independently, without consulting the other.
“I say what we are doing is good for the economy and the environment and the people,” Campbell, who farms near Minto, Man., said in an interview Sept. 26.
“To throw darts and question what I’ve been doing with my life (as a farmer), I am willing to stand up and defend it — modern-day agriculture.”
If political parties are unwilling to defend modern farming — the foundation of the nation’s export-oriented agricultural economy — they should tell farmers now, Campbell said.
“I’m not advocating that, but I think that everybody who is throwing stones needs to know all the results… ” he said.
“We have the land in better shape than it was in the ’30s and it’s in better shape than it was in the ’70s. So I think we have that proper balance in Minto, but is that what the world wants Bill Campbell in Minto to do?
“We have the people who say livestock is bad, and hog manure is polluting the rivers and Lake Manitoba, and nitrous oxide is killing us all, and beef is bad for you, and all of that. You have the right to say that, but based on what? We have the ability to feed the world. If we take ag production back to historic levels we will not feed the world.”
Agriculture is a huge part of Canada’s economy, the second-biggest employer and a growing contributor to GDP. A key report says that could grow even more with agri-food exports hitting $75 billion a year by 2025. But that won’t happen without modern agriculture.
Dahl, who speaks for the cereals value chain, including grain companies, pesticide and seed companies and cereal growers, wrote in an op-ed last week modern agriculture is under attack domestically and abroad.
“We had pesticide-free, grown without fertilizers, and non-GMO agriculture in Canada once,” he wrote. “The result was an environmental disaster, with the soils of Saskatchewan blowing into Ontario, and year after year of crop failure. Technology-free agriculture also delivered poverty and hopelessness for farm families across Canada. We can’t go back to those days.”
Some might accuse Dahl of hyperbole, noting that during the first 9,925 years of agriculture’s 10,000 years of existence there were no pesticides, chemical fertilizers or GM crops.
But for thousands of years farmers also slashed, burned, cultivated, mined the land’s natural fertility and then moved on. Notwithstanding the Amazon, there’s limited acreage for slash and burn today.
But Dahl stands by his position and said he experienced that poverty growing up.
“They (Dahl’s parents) were living on the farm in an uninsulated house with no running water with four kids,” he said in an interview Sept. 25. “It was a hard life and it’s not that long ago.”
According to Dahl anti-technology advocates are pressuring governments to move to hazard-based risk assessments and away from science based. It’s already happening in the European Union, with countries such as Germany moving to ban glyphosate, even though regulators in developed countries, including Canada and the United States, say when applied according to the label, glyphosate is safe.
Glyphosate, a non-selective herbicide, is essential for no till where farmers rely on the herbicide for pre-seed and pre- and post-harvest weed control instead of cultivation, Dahl said.
No till has dramatically reduced soil erosion in Western Canada, improved soil organic matter and helps conserve moisture for improved yields.
Kate Storey, the Green party candidate in Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa, said during the national agriculture debate Sept. 24 that no till was unsustainable because it relies on glyphosate.
She also said Canada should focus less on export agriculture and more on domestic production, arguing it would be better for the environment.
As more countries follow the European Union’s lead, other countries will ban or restrict certain pesticides and GM crops, which in turn will affect Canadian farmers if they want to export crops to those markets, Dahl said.
The Canadian government should provide departments, such as AAFC and Global Affairs, with additional funds to promote science-based risk assessments, Dahl said.
It should also get the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which oversee the registration and use of new pesticides and GM crops, to do the same, he said.
Some might argue that could undermine their independence and credibility.
Dahl doesn’t deny his pro-modern agriculture stance is similar to that of pesticide and seed companies that gain by selling their products to farmers. But Dahl said farmers benefit too through increased profits.
“I think that’s the critical point,” he said. “It’s not just one part of the value chain that benefits it’s really the whole value chain. So yes, these are arguments life science companies would make and probably are making. But if we are going to have an economically viable industry that can compete with Russia, can compete with Ukraine, can compete with the rest of the world, we’re not going to do it as being the low-cost producer. We need technology.”
Campbell worries about democracy
Bill Campbell is worried about the state of democracy in Canada.
The president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) is frustrated with what he sees as indifference from two of Canada’s three main federal parties towards voters in western Manitoba.
If parties don’t present voters with alternatives, democracy can’t work.
As of mid-September two of the major parties, which he didn’t name, had not nominated candidates in the constituencies of Brandon-Souris, where Campbell resides, and Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa. The two ridings make up most of western Manitoba.
“I am truly offended that a national party doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to have a candidate in my riding,” Campbell said in an interview Sept. 26.
Sept. 18 Virden’s Empire-Advance reported the Liberals and New Democratic Party had not nominated candidates in Brandon-Souris or Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa. However, as of Sept. 26 the parties’ websites listed candidates in both.
Given Canada has a fixed election date parties have lots of time to find local candidates, he said.
Brandon-Souris has long been held by the Conservative party and other parties know winning there is unlikely.
Dauphin-Swan River-Neepawa is also a Conservative stronghold, although a few times in the past, and when the boundaries were different, a Liberal was elected.
Still, Campbell maintains for democracy to work, major political parties need to give voters credible options and engage with voters or else voters risk becoming cynical about the democratic process.
“I’m just seeing an erosion of democracy is my 100-mile view of what’s happening here,” he said.
“As a citizen I am concerned about where it’s going.”
During the recent provincial election Campbell complained about the rural-urban divide and how urban issues dominated over rural ones.
“Forty-five per cent of Manitobans live outside of Winnipeg, yet they get only a fraction of the attention,” Campbell wrote in a column published by the Manitoba Co-operator. “It certainly doesn’t help that every party sees the results outside of the city as preordained before the writ is dropped.”