Canadian Farm crisis threatens consumers : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Farm crisis threatens consumers

Canadian farmers reeling from high costs, low prices, corporate control

By: Nettie Wiebe

There are those who may think the subject of farm prices and subsidies is so arcane it could only be of interest to that minority of Canadians who actually farm and that even smaller contingent of agriculture economists. But the issues that underlie the recurring farm crises suffered by Canadian farming families are as near to us all as our next meal. In fact, they are the determinants of where our food is coming from, what it costs, and who is controlling the food system.

Over the last two decades, Canadians have heard many news stories about trouble in the farm sector. The most frequent headlines are those reporting bad weather - hailstorms, flooding, drought, heat waves, etc. These dramatic visuals make it is easy for most Canadians to understand that, when crops are damaged or destroyed by adverse weather, farmers suffer financial losses. There is, however, another range of news items in the farm sector which are less dramatic or transparent, but are of far greater consequence to the food and fate of Canadians. These are the stories of high production costs and low farm-gate prices, loss of people and services in rural communities, increased trade in agricultural goods, and corporate agribusiness mergers.

News of a farm financial crisis is, no doubt, puzzling for most Canadians. What could be the problem with farmers these days? Canadian farms are among the most highly industrialized, highly mechanized, and highly capitalized farms in the world. Indeed, Canadian agriculture is held up as a model for farmers elsewhere - high input, productive, modern, commercial, market-driven, with an emphasis on producing "commodities" for the export market.

But all this is accompanied by farm financial crisis, especially for those farm families relying most on the international market. There continues to be a steady decline in the number of farm families; off-farm income has become a necessity for the majority; and the average age of farmers is rising as fewer young people enter the business. These unhappy results are more than a little puzzling for those who subscribe to the view that prosperity can best be achieved through competitive markets.

Why are Canadian farm families faring so badly in the global marketplace? The favourite explanation is that the global marketplace is distorted by foreign governments, particularly the European Union, subsidizing their farmers, thereby encouraging overproduction. This oversupply is trashing the international price which Canadian farmers are forced to accept. The glib logic of this explanation has allowed it to prevail almost unchallenged. Its simplistic beauty leaves the basic tenets and functioning of the market unexamined, doesn't focus any attention on the players in that marketplace, and leaves consumers happily out of the picture altogether.

There is more to the story, however. Thoughtful consumers might ask themselves how it is that farm-gate prices which bankrupt farmers don't result in lower grocery shelf prices. Why is the purported oversupply not reflected in lower food prices? Socially conscious citizens might reasonably ask how it could be that the same governments, corporations, and experts who tout the oversupply of grains as the cause of the farm crisis are also enthusiastically pursuing controversial methods of increasing production, including genetically modified crops and increased chemical use, ostensibly to erase hunger. Skeptical farmers should be wary of any explanation that blames the prosperity of farmers elsewhere for our own poverty. If impoverishing farmers around the world were really the solution to our financial problems, there are surely enough to ensure our prosperity.

This article was written as the introduction to The Farm Crisis and Corporate Power by Darrin Qualman, a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives produced in conjunction with the National Farmers Union. The report exposes the real problems facing Canadian farmers and is of interest, says Nettie Weibe, to "anyone hoping to learn more about what is happening in agriculture, but also the rest of us who intend to buy, eat, and enjoy food."

-- Martin Thompson (, May 02, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ