Ihave to admit I didn’t pay much attention to Dan Glickman when he was U.S. secretary of agriculture for the Clinton administration in the late 90’s, but I did have a chance to listen to his keynote address at the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s (SWCS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
What struck me was the tremendous difference in our two countries’ focus at the federal level. While farm politics in Canada have unwittingly trudged through internal battles over the Crow Rate, rail line abandonment, and now single-desk selling under the CWB, our neighbours to the south have been gearing up to feed an expanding world population.
The economy and short-term deficit reduction in the U.S. has raised some concerns on immediate farm programming, but the long-term outlook is unmistakably bullish on increasing production. As the number of farmers in Canada continues to decrease, and the average age creeps ever higher, the American government has taken on a goal of adding 110,000 new farmers to its landscape. It sees an expanding Asian population with a significant capital growth in China and India, and it is getting ready to do business in that market.
Glickman was very frank about the challenges that lie ahead. With a large percentage of allocated water currently going to agriculture, expanding urban populations will apply a lot of political pressure to compete for the resource.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a concoction of nutrients, sediments and pesticides, and is a grim reminder that our past use has not been without consequences. Farm practices will have to change to become more efficient and to mitigate the problems we ourselves have created.
Simply increasing yields through existing mechanisms will not solve these issues. New research and development has to take place, and the public funds to do that will have to double as well.
As current director of congressional programs at Aspen Institute, Glickman is still involved with agriculture and long-term planning for food and sustainable agriculture issues. It becomes readily apparent that these people take their jobs seriously and have left no stone unturned. Whether it’s water allocation, water quality, carbon sequestering, genetics, or farming practices, they are determined to move forward environmentally and still meet the demands of an expanding market.
In some respects, it will be more difficult to meet those challenges in Canada. We have already given up significant marketing infrastructure and research dollars are harder to come by. Add to that the fact that some of our solutions are complicated by our harsh winters, freeze-thaw cycles beneath a blanket of snow, and our inability to double crop in most areas. While these are realities of our climate, even more significantly, we lack the vision to see our place in the world marketplace.
In Canada we have lost sight of a very basic fact. We are in the business of exporting food to a hungry world.
Our competitors to the south are very much aware of the opportunities, and are putting the policies in place to meet the challenge. While the Americans expand their rail network and develop programs to move forward in a sustainable manner, we dismantle, rationalize, downsize and wonder why things aren’t getting better. At some point we need to refocus the rhetoric, planning and discussions taking place.
The end of the Crow era was supposed to mark a massive expansion into meat production, which it did, albeit temporarily. The problem was that we neglected to ask our customers if that was what they really wanted. Did the hungriest nations of the world really want more pork? Were they able to purchase premium cuts of beef? Could they keep it refrigerated and pay to have it transported halfway around the world? Oddly enough, in what was supposed to be a market-driven solution, we neglected the market, and the needs of our customers.
In the imminent dissolution of the CWB, is anyone asking our customers what they want, or are we making the same mistake twice in honour of political rhetoric?
Abandoning the largest farmer-controlled wheat-exporting monopoly in the world will ultimately turn control over to the same four multinational corporations that dominate wheat exports in the rest of the world.
That will also mean Canadian wheat will lose its segregated identity and become a blended product. Has anyone asked our customers if they would rather have that blended product than some of the highest-quality milling wheat available? In a world where the customer is always right, somebody should be asking them what they want.
When Dan Glickman says that the world’s population is going to reach nine billion people in 40 years, he is getting ready to feed them. When Canadian farmers talk about population, we talk about rural depopulation, death, and abandonment.
When our competitors see issues with their production practices, they are actively seeking ways to make them better. In Canada we shrug our shoulders and say we can’t afford research. In many ways, it makes one wonder if we really do have the stronger economy in the world market if we can’t figure out how to sell into it.
Shooting oneself in the foot only requires two bullets. The end of the Crow Rate and branch line abandonment may have been those two rounds.
The next is only suicide. It’s time we got on with the business of doing what we should be doing as an exporting nation. Exporting. If we can’t figure out how to mitigate environmental consequences and feed a hungry world, our competitors are showing every indication that they soon will. Les McEwan farms
Simplyincreasing yieldsthroughexisting mechanismswillnot solvetheseissues.