It has often been difficult over the past decade or so to find the word “farmer” or “agriculture” in the avalanche of policy statements put out by federal parties during election campaigns.
Oh sure, there’s been the hot-button issues such as the Canadian Wheat Board, listeria and more money for hard-pressed farmers, but getting the political machines to deliver an actual agricultural platform – as in, a vision – has been like pulling proverbial hens’ teeth.
Organizations trying to organize debates on farm and food policy have sometimes had trouble even getting the parties to send a representative, let alone their leaders.
Grassroots farming issues simply haven’t been high on the political agenda, which shouldn’t be a big surprise in a country that is one of the most highly urbanized societies in the world and in an era when “fixes” for the farm income problem have proven woefully elusive.
But there are signs of that changing, most recently with the Liberals’ release of their commitment to Canada’s first National Food Policy last week.
What’s interesting about this policy statement is that it tackles farming issues – not through farmers’ eyes – but rather through the lens of an urban consumer. Again, that shouldn’t be surprising, as the days are long past when elections in this country were won or lost by the farm vote.
The Liberal food policy says not a thing about business risk management, international export competitiveness and global market share.
It’s full of language about healthy eating, initiatives to promote homegrown food, feeding impoverished children and improving food safety.
While it mentions sustainable farm incomes, it zeros in on environmental stewardship, preserving wildlife habitat and helping poor nations achieve food security.
These are the “farm issues” city folk care about – not boosting productivity, trade and export-market share.
In fact, to the extent that Canadian taxpayers are making up the difference between what it costs to farm and what the international market pays, some economists have openly questioned how much longer they will continue subsidizing exports at a loss.
This can have both positive and negative repercussions for the production models we subscribe to today.
A healthy-living, buy-local fund to promote farmers’ markets and homegrown foods, a program to help low-income kids access healthy foods, and initiatives to promote healthy food choices – these clearly marry health policy with farm policy.
Some have promoted the concept of the “Canadian Diet,” featuring heart-healthy canola oil, pulse crops, flax and whole grains as a diet with similar benefits to the famous Mediterranean Diet. There is even research that suggests crops grown in our northern climate are more nutrient dense, which makes them healthier food choices.
Would that also expand to include a commitment to ensuring local and regional livestock slaughter capacity so the nation’s meat supply can be filled by homegrown stock?
Even if the Canadian produce was available, Canada’s population couldn’t possibly consume everything our farmers grow.
Does an offshoot of this policy become a focus on immigration, in other words, growing the domestic market instead of expanding export trade?
The Liberal policy approach also blends environmentalism with agricultural policy, which bodes well for concepts such as Alternative Land Use Services, in which some of farmers’ income is achieved through measures to preserve environmental quality.
However, some of these proposed initiatives, such as offering “regionally flexible programs that help meet the costs of production,” are almost sure to be flagged as trade distorting by some of Canada’s competitors.
References to “improving fertilizer and pesticide management” imply current management practices leave something to be desired. Farmers aren’t likely to like the sound of that. But it’s an easy sell in the cities.
And it highlights an emphasis on food safety, a proposition that usually means two things for farmers – more paperwork and higher costs. While the government in power, to its credit, has been fairly aggressive in investing in agricultural research as part of the Economic Recovery Plan, many of those efforts are tied to improving traceability and food safety, initiatives that don’t necessarily put more dollars into farmers’ pockets.
Regardless of whether they like these ideas or not, farmers need to recognize that “urbanized” perspectives will increasingly drive agricultural policy.
Farmers may have to tailor their messages to government and the public accordingly. As Preston Manning once told a conference audience in Manitoba, when you are a relatively small, special-interest group, it’s not good enough to tell politicians what’s good for you. You must be able to explain why it’s also good for everyone else. [email protected]