We can’t abandon farmers to economic insecurity

Columns and editorials – originally printed in Waterloo Region Record, December 10, 2009

It’s been about a year since we were plunged into financial crisis and economic uncertainty. In response, governments in many countries, including Canada, went to unprecedented lengths to protect jobs, stimulate growth and reassure nervous citizens.

Here at home, signs of recovery are emerging. We see the economic action plan at work in our communities and every one of us is now a proud part owner of an automaker. But there’s one sector that still desperately needs support – one that is just as important and just as significant as cars, roads or bridges. And that’s agriculture.

For the people who grow our food, the economic crisis isn’t one that just started a year ago. In some sectors, like horticulture, beef or pork, it’s been part of a longer downturn that has been affecting their businesses for several years.

When BSE (more widely known as mad cow disease) hit Canada in 2003 and borders were shut to our exports of beef, veal and sheep, farmers suffered heavy losses, followed by rising feed costs and a soaring Canadian currency. The pork industry has most recently been hit by a popular misnomer for the H1N1 influenza that impacted the global pork trade, and it has long been affected by rising feed costs and a high Canadian dollar.

In horticulture, prices for fruits and vegetables are dictated by the lowest cost product available on the world market. When Canadian farmers attempt to recover their increased production costs by raising prices, their product is no longer competitive and retailers turn to lower priced imports. And for all farmers, regardless of what they raise or grow, the cost of fuel, fertilizers, crop protection and other materials have risen at an alarming rate.

The solution to boosting long term sustainability that farm leaders are now proposing is cost of production insurance to protect farmers from escalating costs and decreased returns. The program would be based on farmer-paid premiums that trigger payments to farmers only when market prices fall below a pre-determined industry price. This would help ensure stable farm incomes and alleviate the seemingly never-ending need for government support programs.

Some would ask the obvious question – why should farmers get a support program to help stabilize their incomes? After all, there are many small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada facing difficulties making ends meet and no one is lining up to promote an income insurance program for them.

But it’s far from as simple as that. There is the over-arching question of food security and food sovereignty to consider. Yes, perhaps others can produce our food more cheaply for us than we can produce it ourselves, but is that really what we want or need? We already spend less on food than almost any other developed nation in the world. As an independent country, we should put some priority on ensuring the safety of our entire food supply – not just the food we produce ourselves – and maintain some level of self-sufficiency when it comes to supplying our food needs.

Then there’s economic impact. Agriculture has long been second only to Ontario’s automotive sector in terms of contribution to the provincial economy and, some would argue, it may have moved to the top spot over the last year.