Farmers can help solve food problem

Columns and editorials – originally printed in Midland Free Press, July 16, 2008

Agriculture has long been an integral part of southern Ontario. But these days, as the world grapples with rising costs and the growing potential of food shortages, the topic of food and farming is regularly and prominently showing up in all types of media outlets that traditionally don’t pay much attention to agriculture.

The secretary general of the United Nations has stated that one of the solutions to the global food crisis is for rich nations like Canada to produce more food. On the surface, that seems easy enough. But let’s consider some simple truths.

There are fewer farmers now than ever before. According to Statistics Canada’s most recent census, the number of farms declined by seven per cent in the last five years, leaving 17,550 fewer farms and 19,140 fewer farmers than in the previous census in 2001. Along with that, our food producing land is shrinking as growing urbanization is eating up prime agricultural land. It is often said that some of the best farmland in Ontario can be found under the concrete and asphalt of the GTA.

We’re facing more severe weather patterns. Climate change is bringing about more extreme temperature swings and more severe weather than we’re used to. Things like late cold temperatures, drought, heat or heavy rains can damage crops or even stop them from growing altogether. The storms that have already hit us this year and the devastating floods in the U. S. Midwest are just the latest examples of how vulnerable we can be to erratic weather.

As any farmer will tell you, farming is a tough business. The hours are long, the work is hard and depending on any number of factors beyond his or her control, the income can be low. Costs for things like fuel, seeds, fertilizer and equipment have skyrocketed in recent years but even though we’re starting to feel the pinch at the grocery store, the prices farmers get for their products haven’t kept pace.

And finally, the world’s population is growing faster than ever before — we were at 6.6 billion in 2007 and are predicted to hit 9.3 billion by 2050, according to the Population Reference Bureau. We’re pretty lucky here in Canada where food is concerned -and most of us probably don’t even know it. On June 14 this year, we marked Tax Freedom Day, the day we’ve earned enough money to pay all of our taxes for the year.

By comparison, our 2008 Food Freedom Day was four months earlier on Feb. 7, meaning it takes Canadians just 37 days from January 1 to earn the income needed to cover our annual food expenses. Others around the world aren’t as fortunate. For our farmers to meet this challenge of producing more food, they’ll need access to all the new technologies and tools they can get. This includes things that many people in rich countries like Canada want banned: seeds that are genetically modified to withstand heat, pests and drought, and pesticides that help crops survive and grow.

Many of these debates will play out here in southern Ontario, one of Canada’s agricultural hubs and home to most of the province’s farm organizations, where farmers from across the province regularly gather to discuss issues and set policies.

Given Canada’s role as an international food exporter, some of these made-in-Ontario solutions will undoubtedly impact the outcome of the world’s food problems.