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WFO president optimistic about the future of farming

New World Farmers Organization head says demand needs to be met 
by yield increases in developing countries

Robert Carlson says it really is different this time.

“I’m nervous about saying it but I do believe in my heart and my mind that it is true because we have new factors,” the North Dakota farmer and president of the fledgling World Farmers’ Organization (WFO) told the Keystone Agricultural Producers annual meeting in Winnipeg last month.

Carlson said he has experienced two major run-ups in world grain prices since he started farming in the 1970s. Neither lasted, but a rising world population and ethanol production have wiped out the surpluses that have dominated the last few decades. Meanwhile, climate change makes future food production less certain.

“This is a really exciting time to be a farmer,” said Carlson, former president of the North Dakota Farmers Union.

“Every day in this world we add to the dinner table 220,000 people — that’s births over deaths.

“That’s a tremendous increase and demand for food.”

Carlson cited the often-reported statement that world meat and grain production must increase by 100 and 70 per cent respectively to feed nine billion people in 2050.

“So we have a big challenge for us as ag producers, and big opportunities.”

Not through exports

Some American farmers boast they could feed the world if free trade opened markets for them. That’s not even close to being true, Carlson said.

“If we’re going to feed the world we’re going to have to do it by increasing yield in the developing countries,” he said.

It won’t be easy. Africa and Southeast Asia, the most food-deficit regions, lack infrastructure, from roads and grain bins to seed and fertilizer.

A lack of property rights is also a stumbling block. Farmers in much of the developing world can be pushed off their land. In many poor countries most of the farming is done by women, who have even fewer rights than men, he said.

Food security is, and will continue to be, a major issue. That’s why Saudi Arabia, China and South Korea are buying or leasing land in parts of Africa to grow food for their citizens.

“They’re so worried they don’t trust the export market and they’re going to what the locals call ‘land grabbing,’” Carlson said. “That really hit home to me how seriously a potential food shortage is.”

It makes sense to establish a food reserve to avoid famine, Carlson told reporters later. The tricky part is setting it up so when stocks are released they don’t undermine grain prices hurting farmers.

“If you’re really sincere about wanting to increase food production and food security, here’s what you do — make sure farmers make a profit because if farmers make a profit growing grain or raising livestock I’ll guarantee you they will try to do more the next year,” he said.

KAP’s meeting theme “Times are a Changin’,” is apt, Carlson said, noting progress can’t occur without change.

“The trick for us (farmers)… is can we control that change so we can make it work for the benefit of farmers?” he said.

“Our job now as president of World Farmers’ Organization is to try to make sure that in these changing times farmers have some power to make the changes and not just react to the changes.”

Decreasing market power

Farmers’ power in the food chain is decreasing along with their share of the consumers’ food dollar, Carlson said. Food retailing and processing is increasingly concentrated, he said. The same applies with the production and retailing of farm inputs.

The WFO, which was formed in 2011 to replace the defunct International Association of Agricultural Producers, wants to represent the world’s farmers internationally, Carlson said. Government and non-governmental agencies want farmers’ input.

“So when we speak we are listened to… because we represent farmers and farmers more than any other profession are what we need in this world if we want people to have food.”

The WFO began with farm organization members from 23 countries. Today it has 54 member organizations from 44 countries and continues to grow, Carlson said.

Trade policy will be a major issue when the WFO holds its annual meeting in Japan in April, he said. Finding consensus will be tough. Some members want free trade while others are protectionist, he said.

“If we can agree on trade I think we’ll be able to agree on just about everything so we’ll see what happens,” Carlson told reporters.

While corporate farms are moving into developing countries, Carlson said he expects family farms to dominate in developed countries. Asked if North American grain production will follow the corporatized poultry and hog model Carlson replied: “I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. I think we’re about as efficient as family farmers at producing grain as any corporation can be, really.”

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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