When, in 1965, Bob Dylan wailed, I ain t gonna work on Maggie s farm no more, he was echoing the mental picture almost all of us have about conditions on the farm.
The dirty thirties largely spawned the identification of farming with grinding poverty, primitive technologies and capricious commodity prices, and the image has proven durable.
In Ottawa, as well as in the popular imagination, farmers and the food industry are old economy, and the family farm a sponge sucking up major tax dollars to keep a politically powerful rural constituency sweet.
But as a wise man once remarked, it ain t what you don t know that s the problem, it s what you know that just ain t so. And the real position of Canada s food industry couldn t be more different than the outdated vision that still infects too many politicians, civil servants and opinion leaders.
Far from being in decline, the agriculture and food sector is a potential economic powerhouse for Canada. The amount of food that will be consumed in the next 50 years will exceed all the food eaten in the rest of human history. World demand is on the upswing, driven by rising population and rising global incomes.
Yet, the world s doubtful ability to respond to that growing demand is ringing alarm bells everywhere. After a half-century during which the Green Revolution produced a huge spurt in food production, the rate of growth is tailing off just when we need it to keep growing most. If we do not find ways as a planet to rise to this challenge, major food shortages and humanitarian disasters are just a few short years away.
As a result, food prices are rising across the world, and those able to feed the world s teeming billions will not only do a service to humanity, but will make a good living doing so.
How does Canada fit in? We have everything we need to fill a major share of the gap in the world s supply of food. We have vast tracts of agricultural land and our soil is in much better shape than many other major food-producing nations. Our climate is clement and climate change is likely to make it even more so. Our supply of fresh water, a major constraint on other farming powers, is the envy of the world. And we have clever, educated and experienced people in every part of the sector: farmers, technologists, researchers, managers, manufacturers and more.
And yet, despite the scale and scope of the opportunity, Canada is not merely failing to take advantage of these propitious circumstances, our ability to supply world markets is declining and our productivity on the farm is falling far behind that of our peers, such as the U.S. and Australia.
Look no further than outmoded government policy based on dated views of the food industry for the chief explanation of this signal failure of imagination and energy.
Take the policy of cushioning the decline of the family farm, which costs Ottawa hundreds of millions of dollars a year in supports of various kinds. Our major competitors use much of their agricultural spending strategically to drive their farm communities to higher levels of productivity, innovation and environmental stewardship.
We allow too much of this spending to be captured by the majority of farms too small and too poorly run to be competitive. Yet the subsidies keep these potentially highly productive lands in the hands of part-time farmers, whose net farm income is actually less than the level of income support they receive.
And because these farms are so unprofitable, it is hard to justify new capital investment; on balance, our farm investment has therefore been declining, not growing. Yet new investment is often the missing elixir that would allow our farmers to raise their productivity and respond to global demand.
Similarly, the heavy bureaucracy charged with regulating new products and methods in the field of food production and processing is creating obstacles to innovation and new product development that are out of all proportion to the health and safety benefit created for Canadians and their worldwide customers.
And don t get me started on Canada s diminished ability to use trade talks to open foreign markets for our products because of our stubborn insistence on defending dairy-and egg-marketing boards the rest of the world rightly abandoned long ago.
The government that gets all this will preside over a renaissance in rural Canada, an expansion of well-paying food-processing jobs, a much needed rise in productivity and a transformation of the industry from a drain on the public purse to a wealth generator. All they have to do is to stare down a few special interests, including in the bureaucracy.
Damn. I knew there was a catch.
Brian Lee Crowley is managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent and non-partisan public policy think-tank in Ottawa. Distributed by Troy Media.
& the subsidies keep these potentially highly productive lands in the hands of part-time farmers, whose net farm income is actually less than the level of income support they receive.