Saturday, 30 April 2011

Justice, Not Likely; Fairness, Maybe

I looked around the room and saw a lot of hardship, potato and livestock farmers who'd lost a lot of money over the last decade, some pushed into bankruptcy. There were non-farmers too,  a surprising number of young people, and older war horses, all trying to understand why a food system that offers so much value and choice to consumers has made farmers a virtual afterthought. The discussion was hosted by the National Farmers Union and was centred on the idea of social justice.  Judging from the discussion there isn't much when it comes to food production.

I know from decades of covering farm issues, going to hundreds of news conferences where agriculture groups would earnestly make their case that farmers are falling further and further behind that, as truthful as all that may be, it has little impact.  Farmers now make up less than 3% of the Canadian population, and when the rest walk into essentially food palaces with products from around the world at prices relative to income that have never been lower, it's hard to make a case that there's something rotten at the core. There are many marginalized groups in our midst, all with legitimate complaints about the unfairness of the economy, and demanding support. Farmers are just one more angry voice.

I don't think  making consumers feel guilty, or embarrassing politicians, will change much. I think farmers have to take a page out of the marketing handbooks, and demonstrate what's in it for non-farmers, if there's a productive rural economy, rather than one that's failing.  There's at least food security and safety, tax dollars for schools and healthcare, more demands can be made to protect then environment.  The "how" is more difficult, making sense of the global purchasing chain that brings frozen broccoli from China to a store in Souris at a cheaper price than a farmer in Morell can produce it.

Change will come. As Asian countries become wealthier, more and more domestic production will go to feed themselves, rather than export markets.  This shift has already started. Some of the most valuable markets for PEI farmers right now are soybeans and canola going to Japan.

It was the young non-farmers at this meeting that intrigued me. They'd obviously thought hard about how the food system works, and had given up a Friday night to add their voice.  A lot of their discussion was anti-corporate (probably going to vote NDP on Monday), but they'd clearly made the connection that there are families and communities behind the grim financial statistics, and in their mind it's up to consumers to demand changes at the retail level. I think they're right. A hundred complaining farmers can easily be dismissed. Six unhappy food shoppers will get the attention of head office.

A couple of things to share. The first is a guest editorial from Bertha Campbell, the president of the Federation of Agriculture. The second is more on a national food strategy from Jessica Leeder with the Globe and Mail.

Benefits beyond the bottom line

Monday, 25 April 2011

Two Views of the World

It's heart and head time again folks. I present a story that is spiritual in nature, but speaks to many people's hopes for a different kind of world. And just to keep our feet on the ground, a counter opinion piece from the ever cheerful Rex Murphy. Talk about different world views.


The Law Of Mother Earth: Behind Bolivia’s Historic Bill

By Nick Buxton

24 April, 2011
YES! Magazine1

A new law expected to pass in Bolivia mandates a fundamental ecological reorientation of the nation’s economy and society

Indigenous and campesino (small-scale farmer) movements in the Andean nation of Bolivia are on the verge of pushing through one of the most radical environmental bills in global history. The "Mother Earth" law under debate in Bolivia's legislature will almost certainly be approved, as it has already been agreed to by the majority governing party, Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS).

The law draws deeply on indigenous concepts that view nature as a sacred home, the Pachamama (Mother Earth) on which we intimately depend. As the law states, “Mother Earth is a living dynamic system made up of the undivided community of all living beings, who are all interconnected, interdependent and complementary, sharing a common destiny.”

The law would give nature legal rights, specifically the rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration. Bolivia's law mandates a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia's economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature. It calls for public policy to be guided by Sumaj Kawsay (an indigenous concept meaning “living well,” or living in harmony with nature and people), rather than the current focus on producing more goods and stimulating consumption.

In practical terms, the law requires the government to transition from non-renewable to renewable energy; to develop new economic indicators that will assess the ecological impact of all economic activity; to carry out ecological audits of all private and state companies; to regulate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to develop policies of food and renewable energy sovereignty; to research and invest resources in energy efficiency, ecological practices, and organic agriculture; and to require all companies and individuals to be accountable for environmental contamination with a duty to restore damaged environments.

The law will be backed up by a new Ministry of Mother Earth, an inter-Ministry Advisory Council, and an Ombudsman. Undarico Pinto, leader of the 3.5 million-strong campesino movement CSUTCB, which helped draft the law, believes this legislation represents a turning point in Bolivian law: "Existing laws are not strong enough. This will make industry more transparent. It will allow people to regulate industry at national, regional, and local levels."

However, there is also strong awareness among Bolivia's social movements—in particular for the Pacto de Unidad (Unity Pact), a coalition of the country's five largest social movements and a key force behind the law—that the existence of a new law will not be enough to prompt real change in environmental practices.

A major obstacle is the fact that Bolivia is structurally dependent on extractive industries. Since the discovery of silver by the Spanish in the 16th Century, Bolivia's history has been tied to ruthless exploitation of its people and its environment in order to transfer wealth to the richest countries; poet and historian Eduardo Galeano’s famous book Open Veins draws largely on the brutal story of how Bolivia's exploitation fuelled the industrial expansion of Europe. In 2010, 70 percent of Bolivia's exports were still in the form of minerals, gas, and oil. This structural dependence will be very difficult to unravel.

Moreover, there is a great deal of opposition from powerful sectors, particularly mining and agro-industrial enterprises, to any ecological laws that would threaten profits. The main organization of soya producers, which claimed that the law “will make the productive sector inviable,” is one of many powerful groups who have already come out against the law. Within the government, there are many ministries and officials that would also like the law to remain nothing more than a visionary but ultimately meaningless statement.

Raul Prada, one of the advisors to Pacto de Unidad, explained that the Mother Earth law was developed by Bolivia's largest social movements in response to their perceived exclusion from policy-making by the MAS government, led by indigenous President Evo Morales. They have generally supported MAS since its resounding election victory in 2005, but were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of progress. Rather than merely expressing their concern, these movements—comprised mainly of indigenous and farming communities—are pro-actively developing a series of new laws. Their first priority was the passage of the Mother Earth Law, based on a commitment made at the historic global Peoples Conference on Climate Change held in Bolivia in April 2010. To some surprise, the diverse movements soon developed a consensual agreement that was supported by MAS legislators.

Raul Prada notes that, even with significant pressure from social movements, transitioning to an economy based on the concept Vivir Bien will not be easy. “It is going to be difficult to transit from an extractive economy. We clearly can't close mines straight away, but we can develop a model where this economy has less and less weight. It will need policies developed in participation with movements, particularly in areas such as food sovereignty. It will need redirection of investment and policies towards different ecological models of development. It will need the cooperation of the international community to develop regional economies that complement each other.”

Ultimately, though, this is a challenge far bigger than Bolivia, says Prada: “Our ecological and social crisis is not just a problem for Bolivia or Ecuador; it is a problem for all of us. We need to pull together peoples, researchers, and communities to develop real concrete alternatives so that the dominant systems of exploitation don't just continue by default. This is not an easy task, but I believe with international solidarity, we can and must succeed.”

Nick Buxton wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. He spent four years in Bolivia learning from movements fighting for social and environmental justice.

And Rex Murphy from here:

Rendering our sanity unto the Earth goddess
April 15, 2011 •

Does environmentalism rot the mind? I am beginning to believe that the more feverish and agitated greens are suffering from a morbid condition. There is, it appears, no intellectual folly to which they are immune, no frenzied leap off the pier of reason they will not joyfully execute, in their reliably bizarre efforts to horrify the rest of us into supporting their cause.

It was only a few months ago that I read an endearing article entitled: "Was Genghis Khan history's greenest conqueror?" on something called The Mother Nature Network. The article noted the "widespread return of forests after a period of massive depopulation," which arose, of course, thanks to Genghis Khan's hordes slaughtering 40 million people. An upside to ethnic cleansing?

And just this week, Bolivia's President Evo Morales hailed national legislation that would enshrine the "rights of Mother Nature" -human rights extended to Earth itself. Pause to marvel at the powers of the Bolivian legislature. May we note that Morales is a James Cameron fan? I think we may.

Vice-President Alvaro García Linera describes the country's new legislation ("The Law of Mother Earth") as making "world history -Earth is the mother of all." He also gushed that the law "establishes a new relationship between man and nature."

The Bolivian legislation, we are informed by Britain's Guardian newspaper, "has been heavily influenced by a resurgent indigenous Andean spiritual world view which places the environment and the Earth deity known as the Pachamama at the centre of all life. Humans are considered equal to all other entities."

Remember this the next time someone says that the science of global warming is "settled," for many environmentalists are inspired not by science, but by spirituality -Andean and otherwise.

What does the new Bolivian law mean? It means that tics that suck the blood, the choking sulphur pits of volcanic vents, the indestructible cockroach, the arid desert wastes and the bleak frigid spaces of the planet's poles -everything from the locusts that despoil, to the great mountain ranges, the earth and all that is in it, are to have . rights. (About the other planets, Morales is silent.)

With Macbeth, let us lament: "O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their Reason."

The proposal combines the decayed anti-capitalism of Marxism with a veritable litany of new-age twaddle and camp spiritualism -paganism in the age of bluetooth and Twitter. Yet it is more than just inane. It is Orwellian, in that it would summon into being something called the Ministry of the Earth, which will provide our planet with an ombudsman, "whose job is to hear nature's complaints as voiced by activist and other groups, including the state."

Why can't the old hag, Mother Earth I mean, get her own ombudsman? And shouldn't that really be, in this context, ombudsperson? I notice, too, how the Earth's "complaints" are to be those voiced by activists and the state, an always convenient ventriloquism.

I am growing more and more confident that the number one threat to the health, safety and future of our planet is the assortment of fanatics who are proposing to save it. They are, as in this farcical Bolivian étude, jettisoning every product of our rationalistic heritage, degrading the advances in reason and science, and regressing to the raw beliefs of those days when, as Milton, wrote "all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones."

When the conscious creature -that would be Man -condescends to worship the inanimate one -that would be the Stone -the order of things is inverted and undone.

Rex Murphy offers commentary weekly on CBC TV's The National, and is host of CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Higher Food Prices-Biofuels: A Bad Mix

An important editorial in this weekend's Toronto Star. It doesn't condemn biofuels (Canada is now a player with a 5% mandated mix of ethanol and gasoline), but clearly shows the impact on the world's poor.


Soaring food prices: The world’s poor grow hungrier
April 24, 2011
More than 935 million people around the world don’t have enough to eat — and the number grows every day. The World Bank says food prices have soared 36 per cent over the past year. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization reports that its index of world food prices is the highest since it began keeping records 21 years ago. The world’s poor are hungry, and quickly growing hungrier.
Some of the consequences are clear. Unrest in some of the countries of the “Arab Awakening,” notably Egypt, has been fuelled by quickly rising food prices. There have been food riots in Bangladesh where nutritious palm oil — a major ingredient for biofuel — is harder to find. The UN is alarmed about the 50 per cent shortfall in funding for Afghanistan’s food operations, saying seven million Afghans will go hungry this year.
Ironically, the crisis is being made worse by the otherwise laudable rush into biofuels. In a particularly cruel example of the law of unintended consequences, the diversion of such crops as corn, cassava, canola and sugar to make ethanol is sending their prices through the roof. “Global maize prices rose about 73 per cent in the six months after June 2010,” reports the World Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development Team.
Forty per cent of the U.S. corn crop now goes into ethanol. (The figure is much lower in Canada: the federal government has deemed our fuels should be made up of 5 per cent ethanol.) China imports almost all of Thailand’s cassava root crop — a staple food in much of Africa — and turns it into fuel.
Using food to make fuel is a positive step as the world attempts to wean itself off oil. But when it begins to impact the food chain it becomes worrisome. “Supply of food must match world needs,” says Olivier De Schutter, the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food. He recommends that rich countries develop strategies to support ecological agriculture in less developed states.
This is not a new problem. In 2008, when food prices spiked even higher, leaders of the G20 countries pledged $22 billion over three years to help poor countries increase food production. Predictably, when the crisis eased they lost their focus. The World Bank fund set up to administer this money has received only $400 million so far.
Developed countries need to heed the experts who warn that targets for biofuel must now be balanced against demand for basic foodstuffs. And the G20, Canada among them, should pony up the money they promised three years ago. With the world’s population predicted to top 9 billion by 2050, money spent now to ensure food security down the road will be an excellent investment.

Green and More

At best the Green Party might elect one MP (GP leader Elizabeth May in Saanich-Gulf Islands in British Columbia. She moved there in 2009.) If the party holds onto the 940 thousand votes it got across the country in the last election, it will further split the left of centre vote and could help the Conservatives win more seats, the unintended consequence  of  "first past the post" elections  and a handful of parties.  This post isn't promoting the Green's agriculture policies which will be forgotten in the hours after the votes are counted,  but recognizing the analysis that went into developing these policies.

The Greens have put a real definition to the notion of local food: "the 200 km diet."  Maritime farmers might want to see something a little bigger (a day's truck ride for example, getting into Central Canada and  the U.S. East Coast), but it's in the food retailing and regulation area that there are some interesting ideas.


"Reduce Corporate Control of the Food supply by:
• Reforming agriculture regulations to challenge corporate concentration.
• Ensuring that farm support payments are farm-based (not production-based) to encourage
more farms and more farmers.
• Encouraging organic farming methods to improve farm profitability and sustainability.
Supports Local Food markets by:
• Enabling local areas without industrial-scale agriculture to develop area-specific food
safety regulations meeting national standards without placing undue financial burdens on
local farmers and food processors.
• Encouraging and supporting the consumption of locally-grown food by promoting
adequate shelf space in grocery chains for products from local farms and local food

This last one has always interested me. IF the big retailers had a row or two dedicated to local production, and, let's go one step further, at fair trade prices (ie. profitable), what's the worst that could happen. Shoppers would at least have a choice, and not have to deal with some cranky meat manager when you ask where the local beef is.  And if it became clear that the cheaper imported stuff was still flying off the shelves, while local production lingered, then farmers and politicians would have to face up to that.  This would have to come with a serious effort to encourage people to see the links between profitable primary industries, food safety and security, and a provincial economy now wholly dependent on transfer payments.  If the quality and value isn't there, then that would have to be improved. .

I'm hopeful it would be successful.  I remember when Maritime Electric offered customers the chance to pay more for power and support expansion of green energy production. Many in Maritime Electric thought this would fail, that customers were only interested in the cheapest price. To everyone's surprise, this program was quickly over subscribed.   And ask yourself if fifteen years ago you'd have predicted  that you'd pay two hundred dollars a year, and clean out peanut butter jars, to support the Waste Watch program. It shut down dozens of dumps, and close to 70% of PEI's garbage is composted or recycled. The system isn't perfect, but most Islanders feel pretty good about it, and enjoy the confusion of visitors to those 3 waste bins.

The big retail chains use "local" as a marketing tool (think of Galen Weston Jr. walking fields with farmers), but on the shelves itself it's a different story. Next time you've shopped in a big chain store, notice the number of products that are "private label", President's Choice, or Compliments for example, and ask yourself if you have any idea where these products came from. From a marketers point of view this is magic, source the product where you can get it the cheapest, give it a label shoppers respect (after years of branding),  and play on the idea of providing good value. Engaged consumers should know more about what they're buying and feeding their families.

The other interesting proposal is tailoring food safety regulations to the industries and regions they're watching over, make them more "local" too. Certainly on PEI the image of heavy handed "health" officials coming down on small backyard egg producers is doing nothing but irritate thoughtful consumers and give PEI an international black eye. "PEI: Home of genetically engineered fish, and rules against free-range laying hens", that's what we want people thinking about the province.  I remember years ago when E.coli  0157:H7  (the deadly stuff) was found in a sample of Charlottetown's water supply (it came from a little used well in the middle of a park in Charlottetown). The province's chief health officer said he was monitoring hospitals for signs that sick, dehydrated people were coming into emergency as a benchmark for how serious this discovery was.  Luckily it wasn't serious, the lines were flushed, the offending well capped off and never used again. Maybe some of the same common sense to monitoring a "serious potential health risk" (as the health officials like to say about these eggs) could be used. Yes the lawyers want to limit any potential liability of someone getting sick in the future, but let's regard these few producers, and the care they take, as innocent until proven guilty.  The people who buy these eggs know  much more about who they're buying from, and why they're doing it, than most consumers. Let's show them some respect too.

Food safety regulators have a big job to do. Large food processing plants have the potential to harm many more people than small operations, and it's one of  the reasons the rules are so cumbersome. As well the huge increase in imported foods is a logistical nightmare to try to get any kind of statistical basis for saying its safe. So lets put time and resources into the food safety issues that do offer some very real risk, and use common sense elsewhere.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

More on Higher Food Prices and Who's Losing

From Thursday's Toronto Star:

Africa bears brunt of global rise in food costs

April 20, 2011
Jason Straziuso and Tom Odula
March 15, 2011, Stephen Omandi works at his stall selling maize in Kibera slum, Nairobi. Food prices are rising across the globe, driven in part by the higher transport costs that accompany rising oil prices.
Khalil Senosi/AP

NAIROBI—Stephen Omandi scratched out the number “55” on the sign advertising buckets of maize and wrote in the new price: 60 Kenya shillings.
The price hike amounted to only $0.06. But for the residents of Nairobi’s largest slum, where most people live on $1 a day, that 10 per cent increase is enough to make the essential food stuff unaffordable.
“We haven’t gotten many customers because they complain, ‘Why have you increased the price?’” said Omandi. “Five shillings. It’s a lot of money, because many people could not afford it at 55, and now it’s 60.”
Food prices are rising across the globe, driven in part by the higher transport costs that accompany rising oil prices. The World Bank said last week that food prices are 36 per cent higher today than a year ago, and are pushing people “deeper into poverty.”
But no region has been hit harder by rising food costs than Africa over the last three months. Wheat costs 87 per cent more in Sudan. Rice is up 30 per cent in Chad. Maize has risen at least 25 per cent in Uganda, Somalia, Mozambique and Kenya.
Omandi used to sell 40 small buckets of maize a day, but on one recent day — the first of his most recent price hike — he sold only two. Omandi was forced to increase his price because the government had just raised the price ceiling it sets for gasoline.
About 100 people blocked traffic near parliament in downtown Nairobi on Tuesday to protest the price increases. A day earlier the government cut taxes on kerosene and diesel, but protesters said the cuts were too small. Yash Pal Ghai, a constitutional law expert who took part in the demonstration, said the issue was both prices and corruption.
“The revenue authority said recently that one-third of the (tax) revenue is stolen by politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen,” he said. “Some people have a single meal a day while others live in obscene luxury and comfort. It is amazing there has not been a rebellion by now.”
In Uganda, Kenya’s western neighbour, the country’s top opposition politician has led three marches over the last 10 days to protest higher food and fuel prices. Police have unleashed tear gas and bullets on the protests, and even shot the opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, in the hand. Protests have been held countrywide.
Thomas Mugisha, a worker in a mattress factory in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, said he now walks to work because the price of public transport rose from $0.30 to $0.60. The protest walks have been a reflection of that reality.
“We decided to walk to places of work as a sign of solidarity with other many Ugandans who are suffering from high prices,” said Alice Alaso, an opposition parliamentarian who invoked the example of the French Revolution during an interview. She complained of high military spending at a time when people can’t even afford food.
The price of maize in Uganda has risen 114 per cent over the last year, according to the World Bank. That’s the highest year-over-year increase in the world. Gasoline and meat prices are also soaring.
The World Bank said much of the recent increase of food prices was due to a 21 per cent rise in oil prices in the first quarter, partly due to unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. Higher crude oil prices mean products like corn and vegetable oil are more frequently used as biofuels. Transportation costs rise.
“More poor people are suffering and more people could become poor because of high and volatile food prices,” said World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick. “We have to put food first and protect the poor and vulnerable, who spend most of their money on food.”
In Nairobi’s largest slum, Kibera, many people eat what more affluent Kenyans simply don’t want: Dried mini sardines, cow lungs, and fish heads discarded from higher-end shops and restaurants.
Many of the slum’s youngest are fed by the World Food Program or aid groups. First Love, a U.S. group, feeds 1,150 students a day in Kibera. Breakfast is a cup of porridge.
“Kids will sneak an extra cup and take it home. We’re OK with that because we know that will be his dinner,” said the group’s Philip Muthui, who was fed by the program when he was a student.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Higher Food Prices: Who's Wining, Who's Losing

The one thing we can say for sure is that the world's poor will pay dearly for rising food prices, the rest gets a little murky.  Low income Canadians do struggle to feed themselves, but on average Canadians pay around 10% of their disposable income for food, more when eating out is added. Europeans pay a little more, Americans about the same.  One benchmark used by some farm groups is to look at  the number of days it takes the average Canadian to work for the income needed to pay the year's food bill. It's 43 days now (February 12th has been billed as Food Freedom Day).   As  food prices rise as expected through 2011, determining Food Freedom Day in 2012 will give us some insight into how much this is hurting. I suspect though that most people's attention will be on the oil and gas bill, petroleum prices are rising even faster right now.

The other important measurement is how the Canadian food dollar is split between farmers, processors, wholesalers, brokers and retailers, in other words, who gets the money.  Several studies show that famrers get on average about 27% of the food dollar. It's a share that's fallen steadily over the last twenty years.  It's also widely different depending on the crop. With the "bulk" crops like wheat and potatoes, farmers get just a fraction of the price: 6% of a loaf of bread for example, a potato grower gets less than what's paid for the GST on french fries. Farmers get more for fruits and vegetables.

 Here's a quote from a recent study found here:

"There was a rise in the cost of groceries by 3.2 per cent from 2008 to 2009, and this money was not
passed on to the farmer. In fact, producers received 1.7 per cent less money than in the previous
year. In the end, the consumer was paying $6.01 more for groceries, the farmer received $0.86 less,
and the middleman received $6.87 more. Depending on the food group, the farmers' share percentage
ranged from 5 per cent for grain products, to 53 per cent for milk and alternatives."

The higher percentage for milk shows  Canada's "supply management" system at work, efficient farmers are guaranteed a fair return. It also highlights the challenge facing farmers not under supply management to get a fairer share of the consumer dollar.

And if the business pages are to be believed, none of the "middlemen" are having fun right now. Large food processors complain about rising costs, meat packing operations say their margins are razor thin, food retailers talk about a very competitive environment.

Internationally many complain about food speculators, investors who look at wheat stocks the same way they see oil or steel.  France's Nicolas Sarkozy has been particularly critical of this. (I'd like to think Dante has a circle ready for this bunch.)

Farmers and consumers both have opportunities to "by-pass" the middlemen, at farmers markets, or through CSA (Consumer Shared Agriculture). There's  hardly a potato packing operation on PEI now that doesn't have a little stand to sell directly to consumers.It's a tiny percentage of the food business in the Maritimes, but it's the fairest bit of business you'll do all year.

Monday, 18 April 2011

A Hopeful Sign (Feels like the 1960's)

This in itself won't resolve the financial crisis many farm families are facing, but having consumers ask that fundamental question: "Where does my food come from?" is a good start, because if Canadians care about the answer, then inevitably politicians will have to pay more attention to ensuring domestic production than they do now.


Food power to the people
by JESSICA LEEDER — Global Food Reporter  •  April 18, 2011 •

The food movement has spoken.

Thirty years after a cross-country team of Canadian food advocates first convened in an effort to develop a national food strategy, a revamped and expanded version of that group will today issue a 27-page roadmap to food system change.

The People’s Food Policy Project, an umbrella group representing grassroots organizations and individuals from coast-to-coast, canvassed more than 3,500 Canadians over two years to come up with its findings. They are based on the concept of food sovereignty, the idea that people have a rightful say in determining how their food is produced and where it comes from. Not only does food sovereignty need to be restored in Canada, the project argues, policies at all levels of government need to be overhauled to enable it.

One of four civil-society efforts currently under way to develop long-term food strategies, the PFPP is the most comprehensive attempt to develop a truly national strategy. Some experts say, however, it is also the least likely to have a direct policy effect. Instead, the value of the project is in its galvanization of thousands of Canadians who have become attuned to how the food system works and which parts could work better if tweaked and aligned with policies on health and the environment.

By creating a sense of democracy around food – the term for that is food citizenship – the project is giving people the sense that they deserve to have more say in the way the food system is set up.

“Policy is almost always an experts-only conversation,” said Kenton Lobe, a PFPP volunteer and a founding member of the Manitoba Food Charter, a position paper that has been used to build support for grassroots food systems change in that province. “Public participation is one of the key parts of how you transform people’s understanding of issues like sustainable development. It becomes a tool of awareness that can only strengthen our democratic process,” he said.

Adding credibility to the PFPP, which would at one time have been considered a fringe effort, is the warm reception it has received from competitors-turned-collaborators. That includes the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Representing agri-business interests, the CFA is developing its own national food strategy aimed at ensuring the sustainability of Canada’s food supply for domestic sales and international trade. The organization, however, keeps an open dialogue with the PFPP.

Both the federal Liberals and the NDP were involved in the PFPP process. Both parties have included food policies in their respective electoral platforms.

The commonalities between civil-society and partisan efforts lie in the desire to bolster Canadian agriculture and food systems by making changes that will enable farmers to sell a more diverse array of food not just outside of Canada but within it.

“As the price of oil goes up, we’re seeing the price of food go through the roof,” said Robin Tunnicliffe, an organic fruit and vegetable grower from Vancouver Island who worked on the PFPP and serves on the board of USC Canada, one of the key organizations to support the project. “If we had vibrant regional food systems, which are entirely possible with a few changes in policy, our food system would be more resilient … to external shocks that have caused chaos,” she said.

Titled Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada, the report seeks to recalibrate the domestic distribution of homegrown food by creating local and regional purchasing policies for institutions and large food retailers. The aim is to ensure food is eaten as close as possible to where it is produced. It also suggests a shift in Canadian agriculture and aquaculture toward more environmentally friendly practices and the creation of policies that help new farmers enter the profession. A national poverty elimination plan and a Children and Food strategy (including a national school-meal program) are pillars of the document.

Rod MacRae, one of Canada’s foremost food policy experts at York University, said the true test of the disparate food policy efforts, regardless of the harmony they’ve realized thus far, will be in whether the government can muster a worthy response.

“Will a government have the capacity to try and extract the most useful and robust elements from all these different pieces and try to create some national consensus around it? Or will they actually be paralyzed … and do nothing?”

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Off Topic But Worth Considering

The interweb is certainly a huge marketplace for ideas, and we know for products and services. I came across something almost two years ago in a technology column in the New York Times written by David Pogue, that has just been improved, and I think is worth considering (and no there's nothing in this for me). Think of this as a food for the head post.

Many of us spend a lot of time reading things on screens from web pages that have become very, very busy.  There's a service called Readability:
that once it's set-up (very easy) cleans up all of the clutter, and feeds back a very comfortable to read page. You have to be on-line obviously to do this.

The recent improvement to the service tackles something that I am a little bit sensitive about, the desire and expectation that everything on the internet should be free. I have absolutely no complaints writing this blog for free, and am thrilled that  people are actually reading it, BUT,  good journalism, investigative pieces, thoughtful and intelligent commentary, none of this comes cheap, and we've watched very well respected and established newspapers disappear through the recession as advertising revenue dried up, while people like me got to enjoy their material for nothing. It's not right.

The New York Times is trying for a second time to set up a pay wall with much more reasonable rates than the first time (about 50 cents a day now, and a limited number of pieces can be accessed for free) Other "quality" newspapers will watch this carefully to see how successful it is.

Readability offers something a little different.  For five dollars a month you get an account that can print, share or archive anything you read off the web that you think is worth keeping, and the service keeps track of material you download (only when you ask it to). It then makes very small payments to the media organizations that produce the material (and you can even direct it to NOT send money to media organization you don't like). At five dollars a month, these are obviously "fractions of penny" payments.   You can also use the service for free, but obviously there's no account to keep track of what you've read.

So you get a much better page to read:


Becomes this:

(you get to choose background colour, and font size,etc).

AND you know that you're paying a little bit of money for the written material that you're enjoying. And again, this has nothing to do with blog writers like myself getting paid, we do it only for the glory.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Bud the Spud Making a Return?

I've said good things about former Federal Agriculture Minister Eugene Whelan before, and here's one more story.   It was the spring of  1981. The potato industry had gone through another bad year, interest rates were through the roof, and Whelan came to a church in Vernon River to offer some financial  help to the industry, but it came with some advice. His message:  PEI has so many advantages to produce high quality seed potatoes (the isolation of an island, long cold winter, Fox Island seed farm, extraordinary experience amongst farmers, etc.)  that it should stick to growing seed potatoes, and let other areas produce the potatoes for the fresh and french fry markets.

There are big differences between these various markets, mostly to do with quantity versus quality.  Seed potatoes start in a test tube (cuttings from what's called the meristem which is a disease-free part of a potato plant) and over 5 to 6 years are multiplied in volume until they end up on a dinner plate or french fry plant. Seed growers generally have smaller acreages, but the potatoes are worth more per pound. 

The french fry business is at its heart a volume game. The benchmark is set by huge farms in the western United States, Idaho, Washington State, and so on.  They farm vast areas of flat dry land using what's called central pivot irrigation. It looks like this:

As long as the Colorado River can continue to supply cheap irrigation (which won't be forever), these Western U.S. farmers will always have yields much higher than any farmers will ever get on PEI, no matter how good the growing season here.  And as with so many other commodities, there's a North American per-pound price that Maritime farmers have to live with.  The bottom line: PEI potato farmers will always be at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to the french fry volume game, just what Eugene Whelan said thirty years ago at that church in Vernon River.

In the 1980's the New Brunswick and PEI potato industries were the exact opposite of each other. 85% of  New Brunwick's potato production went to the huge McCain potato processing operations, and the remaining 15% was for seed and fresh markets.  On PEI the french fry business was struggling at around 12% of the industry, while PEI sold seed and fresh potatoes to the rest of the world. Then PVYN was discovered in 1991 (a minor virus that kills tobacco plants, but was on a list of prohibited diseases in North America,  mostly to keep Dutch seed potatoes out of North America, a story for a different day). PEI's potato world was turned upside down.  Valuable U.S. seed potato markets were lost. At the same time Maine and other important potato growing areas were starting to develop their own seed potato production capabilities.  PEI farmers needed new markets, and quickly.

Enter Irving owned Cavendish Farms, and very quickly after that McCain Foods. All of a sudden the french fry business really mattered here. Over the last fifteen  years the french fry plants have gobbled up almost 60% of the potatoes produced yearly, but as farmers head into the Spring of 2011, this business  is definitely losing ground here. 

The french fry companies themselves have slowly been cutting back on purchases, complaining of sluggish markets, and the big impact of a high Canadian dollar (almost all of Cavendish's sales are in the U.S., and the company does have a second plant in North Dakota, with all of the irrigated farmland the french fry makers like so much).  Just last week PEI agriculture minister George Webster said he could not get any commitment form McCain executives that their PEI operation would stay open in the years ahead.

On top of this a handful of large potato growing farms have decided to quit growing for the french fry plants, some voluntarily, others because they can't get any financing. The ones making their own decisions say the economics just don't work anymore, and unless they can increase volumes, they can't justify the huge outlay of money needed to finance a crop.

It's always been my feeling (admittedly comfortably observing and reporting on the potato business with a regular paycheck coming in)  that the physical layout of PEI just isn't suited to a business that demands huge yields, year after year, to be remotely successful.(look at that picture again).   The real cynics say that PEI ruined its environment so Americans could get fat on french fries.  You do have to balance that view with the desperate need for markets PEI farmers had in the early 1990's, the hundreds of much needed  jobs in the french fry plants, and the stable returns many farmers  had for years  (the french fry market is the one business where farmers negotiate a price, and vote on it collectively.)

I always thought there was one other drawback to the french fry business.  Back in the 1980's I was  in a  big warehouse on the outskirts of Toronto with rows of bagged  PEI potatoes ready to go to supermarkets around the city. There were dozens of various logos and farm names proudly stamped on the bags. There was a real connection between the grower here, and the Toronto consumer, with all of the pride and attention to detail that entails. Driving a bulk truck to Cavendish  Farms and dumping the load into a hopper is a very different relationship with the consumer, in fact there is none. 

I think PEI will be better off as the french fry business losses its importance. I certainty don't deny the hardship many will feel as this happens, but when the dust settles, hopefully the potato business can get back to what it really does better than anyone else.  (Perfect world:  Tom singing about Bud rolling along the 401 right here, maybe you can hear it in your head).

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Debate... What Debate??

The crocuses are one thing, seeing bees busy at work collecting pollen, even better.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Sweet Smell of Bull****

A quick read of the headline to this story, and the first paragraph makes it sound like Canada has scored some kind of trade victory  with the European Union. In fact it's quite opposite. The news release in black, a little more information in red.


23,500 ton beef quota gets green light

CANADIAN Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz confirmed earlier this week that the government has reached an agreement with the European Commission settling the long running trade dispute over beef from hormone-treated cattle.
"Canada and the European Commission have signed a memorandum of understanding that sets a path toward the resolution of the long-standing World Trade Organization dispute on beef hormones,” Ritz said in a statement emailed to Feedstuffs this afternoon.
The agreement was first announced last Friday by the European Commission. Ritz’s statement is the first confirmation of the deal from the Canadian government.

This trade fight began in the early 1980's when Europe banned the importation of beef  raised with growth promoting hormones. Both Canada and the United States said this ban was not scientifically sound, and took a trade dispute to the World Trade Organization. The WTO agreed with Canada and the U.S., and allowed both countries to impose 100% duties on certain European products as retaliation. This week's news is that Canada is dropping these duties, while Europe retains its ban on hormone treated beef.

Canada will end trade sanctions on $11 million worth of imports from the European Union, in return for increased access to the European market. European governments retain their restrictions on the use of hormones in cattle.
"The arrangement signed adds 3,200 tonnes to an existing 20,000-tonne duty-free quota that is open to all WTO Members that can meet the European Union’s import requirements. In return, Canada will remove the World Trade Organization-authorized duties imposed against certain European Union imports,” the Canadian minister continued.

What Europe has done is retain its ban on hormone treated beef, but increase the amount of hormone-free beef that can be imported duty-free.  All countries in the  WTO can take advantage of  this new quota, and no doubt Canadian cattle farmers will increase their shipments, something they could have done twenty-five years ago. 

Ritz said the accord will benefit Canada’s beef producers. Since January, Canada’s beef industry has exported more than 120 metric tonnes of beef with a value of about $1.5 million (Cdn) into the EU market.
"Producers are already shipping several tonnes of Canadian hormone-free beef to the European Union. It is estimated that duty-free access for beef could be worth more than $10 million a year for Canada," the Canadian minister said.

A more honest headline would have been "Canada Ends Trade Fight to Ship Hormone Treated Beef  to Europe". It's not a bad deal for Canada, but it's interesting that whatever leverage Canada had, has been given up, and all countries in the WTO have benefited. We can expect that Australia and others will quickly try to fill the duty-free quota.  And something that gets imported from Europe will now be a whole lot cheaper in Canada.

Food on the Political Radar?

Jets, jails, and now G-20 spending will obviously dominate tonight's leadership debate,  and coffee shop election discussion. Agriculture, and food are on par with the difficult issues facing First Nation communities. Like Shawn Atleo, the First Nations National Chief did yesterday, farm organizations feel they have to be proactive in bringing their concerns into the political debate.

You wouldn't know it in Eastern Canada, but there was a debate on agriculture issues in Ottawa yesterday between Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, Liberal Agriculture Critic Wayne Easter,  Pat Martim of the NDP, Andre Bellevance of the Bloq, and Kate Story of the Greens.  Most of the reporting that I could find was from regional papers in farming areas in Western Canada.

The parties themselves are offering a more fully developed agriculture policy, with some parties  talking more about food, than farming. 

Jessica Leeder of the Globe and Mail has done some good analysis of the differences in agriculture policy between the various parties.

And the promises reflect the regional strengths of the different parties. The Conservatives are sticking to an export oriented farm policy because that's what drives farming in Western Canada. The huge U.S. market for grains and livestock has always been the holy grail for farmers there, and it's one of the reasons Maritime livestock farmers have had so much trouble getting financial help from the Federal government. Western farmers don't want any kind of trade issue to come up to disrupt trade between the two countries.

The Liberals have put more effort to develop a national food policy than it ever has before. Liberals say local food production must be given better support by more rigorous inspection on imported foods to make sure it meets the same safety standards as Canadian products. The Liberals say Canadians health is at risk because of the huge growth  in processed food on the shelves, and the party wants to expand the use of public support for environmentally sustainable food production.

The NDP have a thoroughly developed farm/food policy as well that emphasizes food security and sovereignty, more farmers markets, regional food networks, and a willingness to look at the impact of trade deals on Canadian farmers.

The Greens are big on food sovereignty too, promoting the idea of the "200 kilometer"  diet, expanding the idea of local a little wider.  It wants to see much more support for organic farming, and a better link to using agriculture to soak up greenhouse gasses.

It's not getting much attention in the national media, but this is by far the richest array of farm/food policies that have ever been on offer.

And just to irritate Canada's business columnists, all the parties have said they will continue to support supply management in dairy, poultry and egg production. Of course Stephen Harper only mentions this in Quebec, but he did say it.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

An Important Story Well Told

You don't often look to large processing companies for wisdom and guidance on the food industry, but occasionally one will surprise you. Hellmann's is owned by a huge Anglo-Dutch multinational called Unilever.  In the late 1990's the company stated that "sustainable agriculture" was now a corporate goal. For example it uses the Rainforest Alliance to assure its Lipton Tea comes from sustainable sources. 

Hellmann's produced a short video about Canadian agriculture that's clever and full of important information, without getting preachy. (always a danger, even with this blog).   It's less than three minutes long, and I promise, it will surprise you.

Here's the youtube link if the embedded video doesn't work:

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Another Moral Dilemma To Chew On

I never know if my inclination  to resist absolute answers and conclusions is because I've spent more than 30 years as a reporter professionally obligated to look at both sides, or if  I'm just morally lazy. Biofuels is another one of those difficult topics  that for me resists easy answers. It touches the economy, the environment,  and the morality of turning food into fuel.

Here's what I've learned over the years:

1. There could hardly be a worse crop to turn into ethanol than corn. As a starch (like potatoes) it requires a lot of energy to turn this starch into sugars that can be fermented to produce  alcohol (ethanol). Corn has always been at the heart of what's wrong with U.S. farm policy (it was huge surpluses of corn after the Second World War that led to the development of beef feedlots, and grading beef according to the marbling in the meat, marbling that can only be achieved by animals standing around eating a lot of carbohydrate like corn). After 9-11 the Americans desperately wanted to lessen their dependence on foreign oil, and turning corn into ethanol seemed like a good start. All farmers saw was another  big market for what they were growing, rising prices, so they embraced the move.

2. Other crops like sugar cane (in Brazil for example) and sugar beets (that was the crop proposed for a large ethanol plant in the Maritimes) are much better feed stocks. They're already sugar, so don't require big energy inputs to get them ready for fermentation, so the energy pay-off, and environmental impact is a lot better.

3. The holy grail for biofuels is starting with cellulose from wood waste,  grasses (the famous switch grass, a perennial dry grass, like hay), and other non-edible plant material. This gets away from the food or fuel dilemma. Many companies, universities and government agencies are working on this. It can be done, but the economics still aren't right. We will see it soon, particularly as oil prices move up.

4. Bio diesel presents a whole other round of issues. It's very widely used in Europe and Asia. Essentially the oil that's crushed out of crops like soybean, or canola can be mixed straight up with diesel. That's why you'll see hardcore environmentalists collecting cooking oil from restaurants and running their diesel  cars with it. It's a more elegant solution from an engineering point of view, but I have interviewed farmers from Argentina who lament the huge tracts of land devoted to soybean production that's exported to Europe. The Europeans get the "feel good" benefit of producing less carbon dioxide, but Argentinians loss the ability to produce food for themselves.

5. One more thought.  Since the beginning of the petroleum industry, gasoline has always needed what's called an octane booster. It's a chemical compound that controls how explosive gasoline is. That's why when car owners hear knocking in their engines, it means gasoline is continuing to burn after the ignition has been turned off, and  higher octane fuel is often the solution.  There's been a rather outrageous history to octane boosters. Early on, ethanol from farmers was used, but then Dupont, the big chemical company was able to convince politicians in Washington (I wonder how) to mandate something else: tetra-ethyl lead. So through a good part of my lifetime, huge amounts of lead (a serious neurotoxin) were pumped into the air from car exhausts, and Dupont made a bundle.  When regulators finally came to their senses, and lead was outlawed, other products were used that also had  negative environmental impacts, products like MTBE, and ETBE.  Now, once more in Canada and the United States, ethanol is mandated as an additive to fuel, and I would argue it's considerably safer than these other octane boosters. It does have less energy, so will end up costing more to use, but from an environmental perspective it's definitely an improvement.

So I think ethanol should be part of our energy mix, but on a limited basis (as an octane booster maybe, certainly not a solution to foreign oil imports) and the right incentives (a carbon tax would help) are needed to get to cellulose as the feedstock as quickly as possible.

Today a story in the New York Times on how wealthy countries can take advantage of poorer countries, and put their environmental agenda ahead of the needs of people who will probably never own a car, but need to feed themselves and their families.


April 6, 2011
Rush to Use Crops as Fuel Raises Food Prices and Hunger Fears

The starchy cassava root has long been an important ingredient in everything from tapioca pudding and ice cream to paper and animal feed.

But last year, 98 percent of cassava chips exported from Thailand, the world’s largest cassava exporter, went to just one place and almost all for one purpose: to China to make biofuel. Driven by new demand, Thai exports of cassava chips have increased nearly fourfold since 2008, and the price of cassava has roughly doubled.

Each year, an ever larger portion of the world’s crops — cassava and corn, sugar and palm oil — is being diverted for biofuels as developed countries pass laws mandating greater use of nonfossil fuels and as emerging powerhouses like China seek new sources of energy to keep their cars and industries running. Cassava is a relatively new entrant in the biofuel stream.

But with food prices rising sharply in recent months, many experts are calling on countries to scale back their headlong rush into green fuel development, arguing that the combination of ambitious biofuel targets and mediocre harvests of some crucial crops is contributing to high prices, hunger and political instability.

This year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that its index of food prices was the highest in its more than 20 years of existence. Prices rose 15 percent from October to January alone, potentially “throwing an additional 44 million people in low- and middle-income countries into poverty,” the World Bank said.

Soaring food prices have caused riots or contributed to political turmoil in a host of poor countries in recent months, including Algeria, Egypt and Bangladesh, where palm oil, a common biofuel ingredient, provides crucial nutrition to a desperately poor populace. During the second half of 2010, the price of corn rose steeply — 73 percent in the United States — an increase that the United Nations World Food Program attributed in part to the greater use of American corn for bioethanol.

“The fact that cassava is being used for biofuel in China, rapeseed is being used in Europe, and sugar cane elsewhere is definitely creating a shift in demand curves,” said Timothy D. Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University who studies the topic. “Biofuels are contributing to higher prices and tighter markets.”

In the United States, Congress has mandated that biofuel use must reach 36 billion gallons annually by 2022. The European Union stipulates that 10 percent of transportation fuel must come from renewable sources like biofuel or wind power by 2020. Countries like China, India, Indonesia and Thailand have adopted biofuel targets as well.

To be sure, many factors help drive up the price of food, including bad weather that ruins crop yields and high oil prices that make transportation costly. Last year, for example, unusually severe weather destroyed wheat harvests in Russia, Australia and China, and an infestation of the mealy bug reduced Thailand’s cassava output.

Olivier Dubois, a bioenergy expert at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, said it was hard to quantify the extent to which the diversions for biofuels had driven up food prices.

“The problem is complex, so it is hard to come up with sweeping statements like biofuels are good or bad,” he said. “But what is certain is that biofuels are playing a role. Is it 20 or 30 or 40 percent? That depends on your modeling.”

While no one is suggesting that countries abandon biofuels, Mr. Dubois and other food experts suggest that they should revise their policies so that rigid fuel mandates can be suspended when food stocks get low or prices become too high.

“The policy really has to be food first,” said Hans Timmer, director of the Development Prospects Group of the World Bank. “The problems occur when you set targets for biofuels irrespective of the prices of other commodities.”

Mr. Timmer said that the recent rise in oil prices was likely to increase the demand for biofuels.

It can be tricky predicting how new demand from the biofuel sector will affect the supply and price of food. Sometimes, as with corn or cassava, direct competition between purchasers drives up the prices of biofuel ingredients. In other instances, shortages and price inflation occur because farmers who formerly grew crops like vegetables for consumption plant different crops that can be used for fuel.

China learned this the hard way nearly a decade ago when it set out to make bioethanol from corn, only to discover that the plan caused alarming shortages and a rise in food prices. In 2007 the government banned the use of grains to make biofuel.

Chinese scientists then perfected the process of making fuel from cassava, a root that yielded good energy returns, leading to the opening of the first commercial cassava ethanol plant several years ago.

“They’re moving very aggressively in this new direction; cassava seems to be the go-to crop,” said Greg Harris, an analyst with Commodore Research and Consultancy in New York who has studied the trade.

In addition to expanding cassava cultivation at home, China is buying from Cambodia and Laos as well as Thailand.

Although a mainstay of diets in much of Africa, cassava is not central to Asian diets, even though the Chinese once called it “the underground food store” because it provided crucial backup nutrition in lean harvest years. So the Chinese reasoned that making fuel with cassava would not directly affect food prices or create food shortages, at least at home. The proportion of Chinese cassava going to ethanol leapt to 52 percent last year from 10 percent in 2008.

More distant or indirect impacts are considered to be likely, however. Because cassava chips have been commonly used as animal feed, new demand from the biofuels industry might affect the availability and cost of meat. In Southeast Asian countries where China is paying generously for stockpiles of cassava, farmers may be tempted to grow the crop instead of, for example, other vegetables or rice.

And if China turned to Africa as a source, one of that continent’s staple food crops could be in jeopardy, although experts note that exporting cassava could also become a business opportunity.

“This is becoming a more valuable cash crop,” Mr. Harris said. “The farmland is limited, so the more that is devoted to fuel, the less is devoted to food.”

The Chinese demand for cassava could also dent planned biofuel production in poorer Asian nations: in the Philippines and Cambodia, developers were recently forced to suspend the construction of cassava bioethanol plants because the tuber had become too expensive.

Thailand’s own nascent biofuel industry may have trouble getting the homegrown cassava it needs because it may not be able to match the prices offered by Chinese buyers, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Biofuels development in wealthier nations has already proved to have a powerful effect on the prices and the cultivation of crops. Encouraged by national biofuel subsidies, nearly 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States now goes to make fuel, with prices of corn on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange rising 73 percent from June to December 2010.

Such price rises also have distant ripple effects, food security experts say. “How much does the price of corn in Chicago influence the price of corn in Rwanda? It turns out there is a correlation,” said Marie Brill, senior policy analyst at ActionAid, an international development group. The price of corn in Rwanda rose 19 percent last year.

“For Americans it may mean a few extra cents for a box of cereal,” she said. “But that kind of increase puts corn out of the range of impoverished people.”

Higher prices also mean that groups like the World Food Program can buy less food to feed the world’s hungry.

European biofuels developers are buying large tracts of what they call “marginal land” in Africa with the aim of cultivating biofuel crops, particularly the woody bush known as jatropha. Advocates say that promoting jatropha for biofuels production has little impact on food supplies. But some of that land is used by poor people for subsistence farming or for gathering food like wild nuts.

“We have to move away from the thinking that producing an energy crop doesn’t compete with food,” said Mr. Dubois of the Food and Agriculture Organization. “It almost inevitably does.”

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

A Bull Market

In most businesses market news like this would mean quickly gearing up to produce more.  But the cattle business is a little different, it takes years to go from  breeding a cow to selling a fully grown market steer, and who knows what the price will be then.

What we do know is that the U.S.cattle herd is at its lowest level since 1952, and beef consumption is on the rise as recession weary consumers start eating out again, so the simple law of supply and demand is kicking in.  Cattle prices on futures markets are up 30% from a year ago. Prices could strengthen even further as Japan, already a big importer of Canadian beef,  starts  to replace the domestic production that's been lost because of the tsunami. Farmers have been unable to care for their livestock near the Fukushima nuclear disaster (see last post.).

It may be for the wrong reasons but the price hike is very good news for Maritime beef producers who've stubbornly stayed in business through years of losses since BSE was found in one Alberta cow in 2006, closing the U.S. market for months.  It will put more pressure on the Atlantic Beef plant in Albany PEI, the region's only federally inspected slaughter plant. It will have to pay more for cattle and hope it can recover the higher costs selling to the supermarket chains, and the food service industry.

The remarkable thing is that the price has recovered so well despite a high Canadian dollar. The North American price is set at the Chicago Board of Trade in U.S. dollars. The last time it was this high in Canada , the dollar was worth less than 70 cents, which gave Canadian cattlemen a huge advantage

(This currency business is completely counter-intuitive when it comes to trade. When the Canadian dollar is low, Canadian exporters make out like bandits because the one U.S. dollar could be worth $1.30 Canadian. Now with the Canadian dollar so high - should be a good thing right?- Canadian exporters put less money in their pockets.) 

In terms of sheer numbers there were always more beef producers than any other type of farmers on PEI. A large number were small what's called "cow-calf" producers, the farmers who breed the cows and sell the calves to the feedlots. Many, many potato farms had small feedlots, the cattle could be fed cull potatoes, and farmers want the manure to improve soil fertility.  Most of these feedlots are closed now, and dozens of cow-calf operators quit as well.  Most of these farmers had off-farm jobs, and enjoyed the work when there was some money to be made, but not when it become a very expensive hobby.  And don't go looking for a loan from the cattle farmers still left. PEI hog and cattle producers borrowed  $17.4 million dollars from the Advance Payments programs, and it will take years to pay this back and start inching into the black again.

The large food retailers are already importing a lot of cheaper beef, mostly from South America. If North American prices continue to rise, expect that trade to increase. Even so consumers should expect to pay more for the summer BBQ's.  And good for you if you're buying beef from the Maritimes. It may cost a little more, but you'll help keep your neighbours on the land a little longer, and that's good for all of us. .


I guess you'd have to walk a mile in  their rubber boots to really know what it means, but I think this story captures some of the agony Japanese livestock farmers in the Fukushima prefecture are going through.  Heartbreaking may not be strong enough. If you don't have a strong stomach, don't read on.

Japan farmers brave radiation to feed livestock
TOKYO — Farmers forced to flee Japan's leaking nuclear plant are braving high levels of radiation inside the exclusion zone in a desperate bid to save their cattle -- and their way of life.
But with more than 10,000 animals largely left to fend for themselves since the tsunami knocked out the Fukushima plant's cooling systems, causing the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, the future for many breeders looks grim.
Dairy farmer Hiroaki Hiruta has returned to feed his cows regularly since his village was evacuated, but rarely has enough time to hand-feed the younger animals.
On Monday "I found five calves dead in their pens, their bodies just skin and bones. They had died from hunger and their bodies had been ravaged by wild animals," the 43-year-old told AFP.
"Their organs were ripped out, their ears chewed off. Ravens had poked their eyes out. I didn't have time to bury them, so I laid out them the best way I could and left them there."
In their haste to flee a government-mandated 20-kilometre (12-mile) exclusion zone, most farmers abandoned their livestock, locked in their sheds and unable to feed themselves.
A few have ignored the ban and returned to feed their animals, the cornerstone of their lives.
Some farmers have reportedly refused to leave the area at all, but their numbers cannot be confirmed as phone lines remain down.
Once the pride of Fukushima prefecture, prized for their marbled beef and rich milk, most of the 10,000 or so cattle in the exclusion zone are feared dead, a local farm official said.
Thousands of pigs, chickens and other livestock probably also died in their cages or pens with no food or water, he added. The luckier ones escaped electric fences into the wild when the power went out.
Hiruta is a third-generation farmer who owns 130 Holstein cattle in the picture-postcard town of Naraha, some 14 kilometres south of the plant.
"These cows are like family. I owe my life to them. I know I shouldn't be doing this, but I can't accept this situation," he told AFP by telephone.
"When I enter the shed the cows start mooing. At times they sound like cries for help, at others as if they were saying how much they had waited for me. You have to hear them to understand," he added.
"Before I leave them for the day I tell myself that this may be the last time I see them alive, and I take my cap off and bow. I think the cows understand me. Once, they all fell silent as I bowed. It was very strange."
Hiruta takes the back roads when he returns, hoisting hay onto his truck and heading out to his farm to fill up feed troughs.
He says Nahara is a "ghost town", where he sees no one except the occasional worker in a white protective suit driving to or from the plant.
Granaries outside the exclusion zone are the only way officials have of keeping track of activity in the area, with farmers arriving to pick up feed for their animals, said Masahiro Oka, an official at the Fukushima prefecture dairy association.
"The farmers tell us, 'When cows are our lives how can we just get rid of them and leave?'
"Although we plead with them that their lives are more important we understand how they feel and so can't ask the Self-Defence Forces to forcefully evacuate them."
Mitsuhide Ikeda, 49, was spared the gruesome discovery of dead animals on his only return to his farm in Okuma town, five kilometres from the nuclear plant.
After only a few hours inside the zone, Ikeda's exposure to radiation was measured at five millisieverts -- five times the normal annual level.
All 32 of his cattle had disappeared, probably through broken electric fences.
But he fears the nuclear accident may put paid to the 130-year-old family farming history as a producer of the region's famed Japanese Black breed.
Income from his farm and a side-job as a company employee supported his parents, his wife and two sons -- one of whom is sick. That income now looks like it has gone.
A third of his cattle were new-born calves and six others were due to give birth soon. "I can't image how they are. I am worried about the little ones who need to be hand-fed," he said.
Even if he finds the cows again, he fears he will not be able to sell them.
"No one will want to buy them because they will be highly contaminated. Unfortunately I think they will need to be slaughtered," he said.
But farmers have not given up -- many say they are ready to return to their land as soon as the government allows, and if plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co offers enough compensation.
TEPCO said Tuesday it had offered "consolation payments" of an initial 20 million yen ($236,000) to 10 municipalities in Fukushima.
However, the overall compensation scheme for farmers remains unclear.
"This situation may continue for several weeks but it is unsustainable," said Hiruta. "I only have feed until end of June, and beyond that I have no hope for the survival of my cows."

Monday, 4 April 2011

The View From the Boardroom

I'd written earlier about the business media's dislike  for supply management, that essentially Canadian approach to producing and marketing dairy products, poultry and eggs. Quotas limit supply to demand, farmers are paid based  on a cost of production formula, and import controls are used to make the system work. Look here for more info: 

Late last week a Financial Post commentator took another swipe at supply management. What made it interesting is that he used comments from John Manley a former politician who now speaks for Canada's biggest corporations as the basis of his story. That doesn't make his comments right or wrong, it's just telling that so many of Canada's successful companies (in auto, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, mining, banking, etc. etc.) also benefit from Canadian rules that have sheltered them from  foreign competitors, often for very reasonable, nationalistic reasons (it's good to have healthy Canadian banks). I guess that's OK if you're putting on shiny leather shoes every morning, but not so good if  its rubber boots.


William Watson: Time to end supply management

April 1, 2011
Finally, something that actually gets John Manley a little angry
John Manley, former industry minister, former finance minister, former foreign minister, former deputy prime minister, current chief executive of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, was in Ottawa this week to talk to the annual meeting of the Ottawa Economics Association, a group of 250 strong who heard him give a lunchtime talk at the Chateau Laurier. (You can see his slides at the CCCE’s website.)
Manley became finance minister on the fateful Sunday afternoon in 2002 when Paul Martin either quit or got fired. Four days later, after intensive briefing, he found himself chairing a meeting of the G7 finance ministers in Halifax. He told a funny story about the ritual the Finance officials put you through you when you become minister. Apparently, they escort you deep into the basement of the department’s headquarters on O’Connor Street, to a solid marble room in the middle of which there’s a shiny marble slab. They then lay you out on the slab, anesthetize you, rip your heart out and replace it with a fist-sized chunk of the Canadian Shield. This is what enables you for the duration of your tenure as minister to say nothing but “No!” to your colleagues.
If any of the country’s finance ministers haven’t yet had this operation, they’d better get it now, for bringing their balance sheets back from two years of stimulus spending is going to require stone-hearted-ness by the quarry-load.
You get the impression Manley, who cut deeply at Industry in the mid-1990s, is not actually cold-hearted. On the other hand, his public demeanour is Harper-like in its (how to put it?) lack of effervescence. So it was surprising to see him actually get a little angry during his discussion of a policy problem that has been a long-standing source of irritation on this page, too, namely, agricultural supply management.
Manley thinks it’s now time, in fact well past time, to begin to phase out supply management, the marketing board system that keeps our production of dairy and poultry products artificially low so their prices can be jacked up artificially high. To make the system work, we have to put very tight restrictions on imports, which we used to effectively ban but now, because of WTO rules put in place in the 1990s, merely charge sky-high tariffs on.
Piling two and three hundred per cent tariffs onto dairy and poultry prices is obviously very bad for consumers, especially poor consumers. But it also hurts us internationally. Manley argues our insistence that marketing boards stay off the table in all trade negotiations is killing our influence on the evolution of multilateral trade rules. We used to be “in the Green Room in Geneva,” he says, meaning we were among the small group of countries that put the final touches on any General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade or World Trade Organization deal. But now, because of our insistence on sheltering our supply-managed sectors from foreign competition, we’re “outcasts.”
As an ex-politician, Manley understands it would be hard to simply slash the tariffs and let the supplied-managed sectors fend for themselves. People who got into the industry and made significant investments in good faith under the existing regulatory regime would suffer big capital losses if the rules changed overnight. The government that took on supply management would therefore have to phase in reform over several years and also provide transitional measures to share the adjustment ­burden more widely.
When asked during the question period whether the slow productivity growth he also highlighted as a policy concern isn’t the result of regulations that provide similar sheltering from foreign competition to industries like banking and telecoms, Manley jokingly thanked the questioner for not suggesting his animus about marketing boards was because none of the 150 members of the CCCE is from a supply-managed industry. But after not conceding the premise — maybe there’s not much foreign presence in retail banking because our banks are actually pretty competitive already — Manley went on to repeat the general argument: If Canadians decide a given regulatory regime no longer serves the public interest, they should go ahead and reform it, though in doing so they should give due consideration to the timetable and to measures that will help ease the industry’s transition to a new regime.
The harder-headed among us might think that if an industry has had legislative protection for several decades, the accumulation of profits at a higher than competitive rate should have been reward enough. In the real world of politics, however, it may be necessary to help with the transition. Even so, getting rid of the offending regulations in perpetuity will be sufficient offset for reformers.
To be sure, John Manley doesn’t speak any longer with the authority of a senior Cabinet minister in a majority government. But if the spokesman for 150 of the country’s biggest companies, representing half its GDP in sales, says it’s time to do something about marketing boards, that’s encouraging news