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How the West can be wooed

“…being poor is not a watertight compartment. The relatively well off this year may be next year’s poor.”

Michael Ignatieff, the newly minted leader of the Liberal party, is on record as wanting to re-establish a political presence in the form of elected members from Western Canada. He seems to want to do this through a form of political street warfare: town by town, farm by farm, riding by riding. In the opinion of this old farmer, there is a better way. If you are in the midst of a noisy crowd and you need to get the crowd’s attention, you need to make a noise louder than the crowd’s. That is where Ignatieff should start.

There are two areas of every grain and oilseed producer’s business over which he or she has absolutely no control. One is the cost of getting the product to market. The other is the costs of the various inputs required to grow the crop in the first place. Those two areas are now completely controlled by huge transnational corporations.

Real competition

Our transportation is held hostage by CN and CPR, absolute monopolies that have carved up the business of moving freight to the exclusion of all others, with the exception of whatever trucks can move, an option that is always pricey and that becomes increasingly untenable when the price of fuel rises. What Mr. Ignatieff should do is study the feasibility of giving running rights to others on those tracks, largely built by public money and which the railways now regard as their private preserve. That would introduce true competition into transportation.

In terms of the cost of inputs, this market is also populated by a variety of huge transnational corporations. Fertilizer, chemical, seed and fuel companies present themselves as a high and impenetrable wall, with small postern doors before which farmers prostrate themselves and, at a given signal, shovel in most of whatever money they have squirrelled away in the past year. In return, farmers get metered amounts of the products they need, dribbled out to them.

Now, if these farmers are only stubborn and ignorant rustics doing what they do because they are too perverse to do anything else, and their predicament has no possible repercussion beyond themselves, then reason would dictate that they be ignored. But these farmers are the visible portion of that great, worldwide army of souls whose main reason for existence is working the soil, to participate in the miracle of growing food for themselves and others. As such, they need some protection, both for themselves and for the well-being of the rest of mankind.

Last year I paid $470 a tonne for 46-0-0 nitrogen fertilizer. Late this past summer, it was near $1,000 a tonne, mostly because farmers’ incomes had gone up. Natural gas, the main ingredient in production of nitrogen fertilizer, had not gone up that much and, indeed, has recently fallen quite dramatically, along with the price of crude oil. Fertilizer prices, meanwhile, have remained stubbornly high. Obviously fertilizer producers don’t want to give up their rich profits and they want to get whatever bit of money the farmers have left from those exceedingly brief, euphoric few months of high commodity prices. In the area of seed, research into plant breeding has almost all been taken over by transnationals and the sale of certified seed is pretty well totally controlled by corporations. Research by these entities is all oriented to their bottom lines, with little thought given to genetic diversity or long-range consequences.

All this matters because food sovereignty and food security matter. We have seen how quickly escalating food prices impact the poor of the world. But being poor is not a watertight compartment. The relatively well off this year may be next year’s poor. Today’s wealthy may be the needy in a decade. And it should be evident that we can’t leave something as important as our food supply in the hands of corporations that are siphoning off the wealth of the world and sending it into the pockets of a relatively few shareholders.

A different reception

So, how can Michael Ignatieff do anything about these things? He can start by talking to farmers about them. Trust me. A Liberal who might be given a very rough reception in a coffee shop in Western Canada talking about the price of oil or the problems of manufacturing in Central Canada would get a very different reception if he spoke about the things I’m talking about here. And he can perhaps look at enlarging the scope of the Canadian Wheat Board, so it could get into the business of inputs and transportation. What I’m talking about is a system that gives farmers some power in the marketplace, that assures food security for the larger population of our country and, beyond us, to the world.

– John Beckham is a farmer writing from Winnipeg.

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