Saturday, 12 March 2011

Back to the Elephant in the Room

A former executive with Maple Leaf Foods was on PEI recently, and he had some nice things to say about PEI agriculture.

Ted Bilyea said that PEI is leading the pack when it comes to tackling the environmental impact of farming:

"P.E.I. is “ahead of the curve” in efforts to maintain sustainable soil: “It was very encouraging to see that P.E.I. is doing the right things. They are paying attention …and they’re probably not getting full credit for what they’ve done.”

I think he's right that there are efforts to maintain sustainable soil and that people are paying attention, but I also know many Islanders will ask  "What's this guy been smoking??"

It's definitely one of these "values" issues that can be very divisive.  For most of the last century PEI farmers had a lot of things working in their favour:  excellent soils to work, a regulatory system that offered free inspection that ensured only quality produce going to market,  and transportation subsidies on feedgrain and trucking produce to the big central Canadian markets.  That started to change with the budget deficit anxieties that began with Brian Mulroney in the 1980's, and picked up speed with Paul Martin in the 1990's. The cost structure and, even more importantly, the ability to recover those costs out of the marketplace, (see earlier posts)  severely challenged the abilities of even the best, most responsible farmers.

If a person owns a hardware store and things aren't going well, he/she can order less, or return stock, fire a salesperson, have a sale. None of this is easy, but steps can be taken that have an immediate impact on the bottom line.  It's a little bit harder for farmers. Many, many studies have shown that the only response available to farmers when margins are squeezed (costs go up, revenues go down) is to grow more. Unfortunately (particularly if thousands of other farmers are doing the same thing)  this usually just makes the situation worse, but this only becomes apparent months after cropping decisions have been made, and the bins and warehouses are full. The whole cycle starts again the following spring.

And there is almost always environmental fallout from pushing land to produce more, trying to manage more acres.  Sloping fields around waterways start to be used, spraying is done on windy days because there is just too much land to cover,  fields are plowed in the fall and laid bare for the winter because there just won't be time in the spring to get the work done, crop rotations get shortened. These things shouldn't happen, but they do.

That's a lot of preamble leading to the more important question: are tough economic times any excuse for harming the environment?

Europe, which has one of the most generous farm subsidy programs in the world, comes at it a different way.  If the public expects farmers to protect the environment, then the EEC must maintain generous public support. This from:

"Why do farmers need public support – don't they earn enough already?
Contrary to popular belief in some countries, farming is not a money-spinner. Compared to other
professions, farmers often work longer hours and earn less. Essential investment in their
businesses is costly and returns only come months, perhaps even years, later.
European Union farmers benefit from income support for supplying the kind of public goods which
cannot be provided purely by the market – environmental protection, animal welfare, highquality
and safe food. European Union standards in these areas are amongst the highest in the
world. As a consequence, producing food in Europe is more expensive than in countries where such
standards are not obligatory.
As high-cost producers of food, European farmers would find it very difficult to compete
against farmers in other countries without public support. Indeed, as the impact of climate change
increases, the cost of sustainable farming is only likely to rise."

Canadian farmers do not get anywhere near the level of public support that Europeans farmers do, but are faced with the same competition from low-cost, low regulation countries. Can we expect the same level of financial support to protect the environment here, or even the kind of public policy discussion that Europeans are having?   If you think so, I'd like to share whatever you're smoking too.

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