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

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