Tuesday, 25 February 2014

PEI: So Far Behind, We're Ahead

PEI's land ownership law seems quaint and old fashioned in a world where capital goes wherever it wants, and size is everything.  At its heart are values felt as much as understood by Angus MacLean, the gentleman farmer who was premier in the late 1970's. He spoke of  "rural renaissance", "small is beuatiful", and "who will speak for the trees."  I feel almost naive putting these down on paper, but I continue to feel they're important.  Angus' attorney general at the time Horace Carver gave these values fresh meaning with a report commissioned by the Ghiz Liberals to see if the land laws needed updating. Carver says there is need for some changes, but the basic tenants should continue, individuals can own a thousand acres, corporations, three thousand acres. And yes smart lawyers can work around the restrictions, but so what.

I was thinking about this after reading the following story about U.S. equity firms (big pools of investment dollars) eying the purchase of huge tracts of farmland.  It's not hard to think that climate change, population growth, rising middle classes in India and Asia, will make food production not just important but profitable.   A land ownership law gives Islanders some chance that the benefits from this will stay local. I think that's a good thing, and just like regulation in the petroleum business which started here but has now spread to Hawaii, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, etc., we may find PEI's "old fashioned" land law has appeal elsewhere as well.


Half of US Farmland Being Eyed by Private Equity

WASHINGTON - An estimated 400 million acres of farmland in the United States will likely change hands over the coming two decades as older farmers retire, even as new evidence indicates this land is being strongly pursued by private equity investors.
Mirroring a trend being experienced across the globe, this strengthening focus on agriculture-related investment by the private sector is already leading to a spike in U.S. farmland prices. Coupled with relatively weak federal policies, these rising prices are barring many young farmers from continuing or starting up small-scale agricultural operations of their own.
In the long term, critics say, this dynamic could speed up the already fast-consolidating U.S. food industry, with broad ramifications for both human and environmental health.
“When non-operators own farms, they tend to source out the oversight to management companies, leading in part to horrific conditions around labour and how we treat the land,” Anuradha Mittal, the executive director of the Oakland Institute, a U.S. watchdog group focusing on global large-scale land acquisitions, told IPS.
“They also reprioritise what commodities are grown on that land, based on what can yield the highest return. This is no longer necessarily about food at all, but rather is a way to reap financial profits. Unfortunately, that’s far removed from the central role that land ultimately plays in terms of climate change, growing hunger and the stability of the global economy.”
In a new report released Tuesday, the Oakland Institute tracks rising interest from some of the financial industry’s largest players. Citing information from Freedom of Information Act requests, the group says this includes bank subsidiaries (the Swiss UBS Agrivest), pension funds (the U.S. TIAA-CREF) and other private equity interests (such as HAIG, a subsidiary of Canada’s largest insurance group).
“Today, enthusiasm for agriculture borders on speculative mania. Driven by everything from rising food prices to growing demand for biofuel, the financial sector is taking an interest in farmland as never before,” the report states.
“Driven by the same structural factors and perpetrated by many of the same investors, the corporate consolidation of agriculture is being felt just as strongly in Iowa and California as it is in the Philippines and Mozambique.”
As yet, the amount of U.S. land owned by private investors is thought to be relatively low. The report points to a 2011 industry estimate that large-scale investors at the time owned around one percent of U.S. farmland, worth between three five billion dollars.
Last year, however, another industry analyst put this figure at around 10 billion dollars, suggesting that the institutional share of farmland ownership is rising quickly.
“We’ve been seeing a decimation of the family farmer for a long time, but now these processes are accelerating,” Mittal says. “We need a tightening at the policy level before we’re swamped by these trends.”
Demographic Collision
In the year after food prices suddenly rose in 2008, global speculation in land rose by some 200 percent. With the international financial meltdown coinciding almost simultaneously with this crisis, investors have increasingly viewed agricultural land as a relatively safe place to put their money amidst rising volatility.
In the United States, investors are particularly eyeing potential future returns from mineral prospecting, water rights and strengthening trends in meat consumption. U.S. farmland is also seen as globally desirable due to a combination of high-tech farming opportunities and lax regulations regarding the use of genetically modified crops.
As a result of this new interest, land prices in the United States have risen by an estimated 213 percent over the past decade. This could now play into two trends at once.
Already, the United States is home to relatively low numbers of farmers, with the country famously home to more prisoners than full-time agriculturalists. But those who do continue to farm are also quickly aging.
While federal agriculture officials are expected to offer updated demographic information within the coming week, the most recent statistics suggest that just 6 percent of farmers are under 35 of age. Further, some 70 percent of U.S. farmland is owned by people 65 years or older.
“The older generation needs to cash out because they have no retirement funds, even as the new generation doesn’t have the capital to get into the kind of debt that [starting a farm] requires,” Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a farmer and co-founder of the Agrarian Trust, a group that helps new farmers access land, told IPS.
“Today there is a huge number of older folks trying to decide what to do with their land, and in many places we don’t have many years to help them make that decision. So in that sense there’s an urgent need, and we don’t have many tools at the federal level to help.”
For the most part, Fleming suggests, U.S. federal agriculture policy today is not aligned to the country’s best interests, instead pointing away from greater agricultural diversity, regional resilience and greater strengthened opportunity for rural economies. Nonetheless, she says that her organisation is encountering a surge of attention from young people that want to start their own farms.
“Over the past seven years, we’ve had an explosion of interest in being trained as a farmer and entering the trade of agriculture, and this is very much related to the crises around the banks and the environment,” she says.
“The problem we’re facing is not one in which nobody wants to farm, but rather the fact that the U.S. economy is structured in such a way that makes it really hard to start a farm in this country.”

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

They Did What???

I hate writing about this.  It might well offer an explanation about how a virus that's proven deadly to young pigs (no risk to people or other livestock) was found on  PEI, and a handful of other hog operations in Ontario and Manitoba, but, if true, raises many many questions.

There's some evidence that a pelletized feed produced by a company based in Cambridge Ontario called Grand Valley Fortifiers (GVF) is partly, wholly, responsible for the spread of PED.  Like human flu, it can spread through mishandling of swine manure, but the possibility of weiner feed being the source is gaining credibility. It turns out the feed for young pigs includes refined blood plasma from other pigs. Here's how an industry publication described it after GVF recalled its feed a week ago. "Grand Valley Fortifiers said it made its decision based on a statement from Steve Dritz of Kansas State University, which said "The magnitude of risk that swine feed can be a potential vector for porcine epidemic diarrhea virus transmission is currently unknown. However, the Kansas State University Swine Nutrition team believes at this time it is prudent for pig producers be knowledgeable of feed ingredients that are in their swine rations. Also, the K-State team has provided example nursery diet options without porcine origin ingredients. These options range from removal of all porcine origin feed ingredients to removal of specific protein based ingredients from nursery diets."   Some of the farms in Ontario, and the farm here on PEI were using this feed which has now been recalled.  The CFIA is investigating and says it will have results in a few days.

It's the "without porcine ingredients" that gets me.  Now unlike cattle, pigs are omnivores, but that doesn't mean they're cannibals.  Cattle have multiple stomachs and were designed to eat grasses, and that's why the feeding of cattle/sheep bi-products and the resulting risk of mad-cow disease was so unnatural, and eventually outlawed. Pigs will eat almost anything, but the idea that using the blood bi-products of dead pigs as a good source of protein seems bizarre. And of course GVF is saying it bought the blood bi-products from another company (reputable it says), and that's it's now removed "porcine ingredients" from its feed. Thanks for that.

As consumers we demand cheap meat.  Smart people work away at finding ways to lower costs to supply this, and I guess that blood plasma was just going to go to the dump anyway (could have been used in compost at least), so what the heck.  Well if "porcine ingredients" is a vector for the virus, then we all lose. As millions of wieners died  in the United States the price of pork has shot up, so maybe this wasn't such a good trade off after all. Maybe it was just stupid.

Here's what the CFIA is saying:

CFIA Statement on Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus in Feed - Animals

February 18, 2014: The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is conducting science-based testing to determine if feed may be a contributing factor in the current Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) situation.
PED poses no risk to human health or food safety.
Proper biosecurity measures remain the first and best line of defense for pork producers to protect against PED.
As a precautionary measure, on February 9, 2014, Grand Valley Fortifiers issued a voluntary recall for certain pelleted swine nursery feed products containing porcine plasma.
Testing has determined that PED virus was present in samples of US-origin plasma obtained at the third-party manufacturer for Grand Valley Fortifiers. This plasma was used as an ingredient in feed pellets produced by the company. Testing with a swine bioassay has determined that the plasma ingredient contains PED virus capable of causing disease in pigs.
Further testing will be done to assess if the feed pellets are capable of causing disease in piglets, and results are expected within days. Testing will continue to confirm a direct link between the feed and the spread of the disease, as the virus is only confirmed in a single ingredient at this time.
The CFIA is working closely with the company to confirm the effectiveness of the recall, and is closely examining company records to see where potentially affected product was distributed.
The CFIA is also reviewing records of other imports of swine plasma and will work with the Council of Chief Veterinary Officers and the pork industry in Canada to proactively manage the possible risk of transmission through feed.
As the investigation continues, additional actions such as recalls may be necessary to minimize the potential that feed could contribute to the transmission of this disease in Canada.
Date modified:

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Don't Like It... Too Bad

Despite two agonizingly long negotiated trade deals with the U.S. (U.S. FTA, and NAFTA), Canada continues to wrestle with trade restrictions when selling to our biggest trading partner, especially the farming sector.  Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is the latest effort to slow down the movement of live and processed hogs and cattle into the U.S.  CBC's hard nosed Washington correspondent Neil MacDonald has a good piece on what this means, and the continued multi-billion dollar support for U.S. farmers, something that impacts directly on Canadian farmers who must sell in a North American price environment.... it's just that the U.S. farmers is getting that extra income in the mail.


New U.S. farm bill coddles farmers, ignores Canada's plea

Among the many myths Americans entertain about themselves is the belief they're self-made; that any success they might enjoy is in spite, rather than with the help, of government.
As Ronald Reagan once said, to a great chorus of cheers, "government isn't the solution to our problem, government IS the problem."
Nowhere is that notion more fiercely beloved than in the vast spaces between this nation's cities; in gun-toting, Republican-voting, tall-standing, rural America.
It's a delusion, of course. U.S. farmers are practically wards of the American nanny state.
But it's a delusion the legislators who represent rural America — both Republican and Democrat — are willing to pay to maintain.
Big time, in fact: propping up delusions wins elections.
Take the outrageous story of Washington's hush money to Brazil. It's not one that's widely known in the U.S., probably because it cuts against Reagan's government-is-the-problem narrative.
But it beautifully illustrates the lengths to which Congress will go to coddle and protect certain American businesses, even as Washington accuses other countries, like China or even Canada, of unfair trading when they do the same thing.

Brazil's hush money

The Brazil story goes back to 2002 when the government of Brazil lodged a complaint against the U.S. government for unfairly subsidizing American cotton farmers.
The Brazilians had an excellent case; Washington has for decades been paying farmers cash whether they grow crops or not.
Some U.S. legislators tried to end tobacco subsidies fully in the new farm bill but didn't succeed. (Reuters)
But U.S. cotton producers are a powerful lobby. They account for most of the world's cotton exports, and employ 200,000 people in 17 states.
Between 1995 and 2012, the U.S. government has paid its cotton producers $32.9 billion, giving them a crushing advantage over farmers in other countries, particularly those struggling along in poor nations like Mali.
So, Brazil took the U.S. to the World Trade Organization for arbitration, and Brazil won.
The Americans appealed, and the Brazilians won again. And again.
Finally, in 2010, with the WTO's approval, Brazil began compiling a list of retaliatory tariffs against American goods, in effect threatening a trade war.
It was at that point that someone in Washington came up with the idea of simply bribing the Brazilians.
As a strategy, it was very effective. For $147 million a year, the Brazilian cotton growers agreed to shut up and let the Americans keep subsidizing their cotton growers.
Voters in the 17 cotton-producing states would continue to send (mostly) Republicans to Congress, and Ronald Reagan's small-government delusion would remain intact.
"Wow," said a Canadian official I know, when told about the sweet Brazilian deal. "Our beef producers would love some of that action."

Not so COOL

For livestock producers, country-of-origin labelling is currently Canada's biggest beef, so to speak, with the Americans.

Since 2002, largely as a result of the mad cow scare in Britain, the U.S. has required meat producers to segregate and label animals from abroad, which makes it more expensive to sell Canadian beef here, and therefore injures Canadian meat exports. They've dropped by about half since 2008.
The Canadian government regards county-of-origin labelling, or COOL, as a legal gimmick where the real intent is to protect the American beef industry from competition. (The beef in both countries is genetically identical, and the herds are for all intents and purposes integrated.)
So Canada, like Brazil, took the U.S. to the WTO and won its case.
But the Americans came up with a legal workaround that just made matters worse for Canadian farmers. And the recent farm bill from Congress failed to make the change Ottawa asked for, so the Canadian government is now  threatening to go back to the WTO.
 For all the good that will do.
As Canada has learned during its many years of struggling with the Americans over softwood lumber exports, taking on the protectionist American behemoth (which believes itself to be a fair trader) can be self-defeating.

Big vs. small

"It's not a matter of right and wrong, or fair and unfair, it's a matter of bigger and smaller," says Peter Clark, a former trade negotiator who runs a consultancy in Ottawa. "The Americans have enough economic clout to do what they want, and Canada has to keep looking over its shoulder."
COMMONS 20121130
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had been hoping the U.S. Congress would change the country-of-origin labelling rules when it passed the new farm bill. But it didn't and now, he says, Canada might go back to the WTO to see trade redress. (Canadian Press)
Take that massive farm bill just passed by Congress.
It will spend a trillion dollars over 10 years, much more than President Barack Obama's stimulus spending that Republicans railed against so angrily, and yet it has gone largely unreported in U.S. media.
The bill is a cornucopia of government subsidies and largesse — to satisfy Democrats, a lot of it actually goes to food-stamp programs in urban areas.
But it is also a massive crutch for American agribusiness, mostly courtesy of congressional Republicans, who are supposed to stand for lower spending and less government.
The irony here is that Canada, regarded by American conservatives as some kind of socialist co-operative, has actually been doing the opposite: reducing farm subsidies and making farmers more responsible for their own losses, while the U.S. Congress keeps the public teat open.
And all the while, says Peter Clark, "Americans actually don't think they are subsidized."
That's not to say there aren't angry conservative voices here. The Wall Street Journal called the farm bill a raid on taxpayers: "Handouts to agribusiness and millionaires? Continued trade protectionism for the sugar industry? It's all still there."
Brazil wasn't terribly impressed, either. Last fall, after the arbitrary cuts to government spending known as "the sequester" put an end to Washington's millions in hush money to Brazilian cotton producers, the Brazilian government once again began readying barriers against a wide range of U.S. goods.
A trade war could be under way by the end of this month. Unless, that is, Washington figures out some new way to protect its protectionism.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Labeling GM Food, and More $ Trouble at the CBC

The two topics aren't directly related but recent developments offer some insight into things that  matter to many of us.

The first is an internal memo from Hubert Lacroix, the president of the CBC, that indicates more difficult days ahead. My hands aren't clean on this. I worked at CBC for 30 years, most during better times when there were opportunities, time and resources to go after important stories. The last ten years we waded through continual budget cuts (similar to what education and healthcare workers continue to experience) and the impact on moral, and quality of the work. This isn't to say that CBC has gone soft:  the Glenn Greenwald material on domestic spying, the very excellent Fifth Estate piece done by Linden MacIntyre on the Harper government's disdain for science is journalism we can be proud of and, as citizens,  worry about.

So here's the memo with one brief story on The Local Programming Improvement Fund referred to in the memo. CBC Charlottetown had a direct influence on this being created.  CBC (Tony Berman) had announced that local supper hour newscasts like Compass would end and be replaced with one show: Canada Now with Ian Hanomansing. A small group of Islanders (thank you again) immediately set up  to save the show. As the president of the local journalist's union I began meeting with the Liberal MP's at the time (some still with us) to convince them they didn't want to see Compass disappear on their watch (it had a 70% plus market share). Lawrence MacAulay immediately saw the risk. He was very close to Jean Chretien. the PM at the time. Chretien's fixer Eddie Goldenberg went to the CBC to see if this decision could be reversed. The CBC said yes if the government gave it more money. That led to the creation of the Local Programming Improvement Fund, and more than a dozen local supper hour shows were saved. That was then.  We have a different government in power now, and I don't know if the otucome this time around will be as positive.

From Hubert Lacroix:

"But I also see dark clouds on the horizon. On Monday, I informed the Board that we are projecting significant financial challenges: a weak advertising market across the industry, lower-than-expected schedule performance in the key 25-54 year-old demographic on CBC Television, lower than expected ad revenues from Espace Musique and CBC Radio 2, and the loss of the NHL contract (and its anticipated ripple effect on our ability to sell the rest of our television schedule next year and beyond) have combined to create an important revenue shortfall for the whole of CBC/Radio-Canada, starting with the next fiscal year. These challenges are in addition to the last year of reductions announced from the Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP) in 2012, the elimination of the Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) and another two-year government-wide salary inflation funding freeze.
"We are working hard to confirm the bottom line. However, it’s clear that tough and more fundamental decisions will have to be made to establish a longer-term, sustainable, financial model for our corporation. This will be a central priority of our strategic plan beyond 2015. We can't be resizing the public broadcaster every second year.
"We’ve been through this before. Doesn't make it easier though.
"I wrestled with the timing of this particular message. But, while I fully admit the timing is not ideal, as we prepare for the Games, I have always believed that you need to know, and always promised to be as frank and direct with you as I can be. In that spirit, I promise to have updates for you as they become available."
on GM labeling this commentary presented in a very mainstream  publication. As Canada and the U.S. negotiate and enter into new trade deals with Europe and elsewhere, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Why we need GMO labels

Editor's note: David Schubert is professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
(CNN) -- Most people like to know what they are eating. However, labeling for genetically modified organisms is not required in any state. This is largely because of the money expended by GM seed producers toward blocking food-labeling laws.
A common claim made by this group is that GM foods have been proved safe to eat and that there is a global scientific consensus to support this statement; therefore, no labeling is needed.
However, an examination of the scientific data, along with discussions on this topic in other countries, show that both claims are blatantly false. What is the evidence that some GM foods are hazardous to human health and that consumers should be able to make a choice based upon this information?

When GMOs were introduced nearly 20 years ago, there was the promise of crops with increased yields and resistant to flooding and salt. Since then, traditional breeding methods have created commercial varieties with these traits, while genetic engineering has created none. For example, recently published data show that conventional breeding of corn and soy increases yields to a greater extent than GM technologies.
With the promise of reducing the use of agricultural chemicals, most of the current GM crops are supposedly either insect or herbicide resistant. In reality, GM crops have fostered an epidemic of herbicide resistant weeds and insects that are no longer killed by the built-in toxins.
The result is a massive increase in herbicide use -- an additional 527 million pounds over the past 16 years. The major herbicide, glyphosate, is found inside the GM plants we eat, leading to its detection in people. Future GM crops will likely trigger a greater use of more toxic herbicides such as 2,4-D, a component of the Agent Orange defoliant deployed in Vietnam. In addition to these problems, there is increasing evidence that GM crops and the chemicals required for their production are harmful to humans.

An Associated Press story in October documented the large increase in cancer and birth defects in commercial farming areas of Argentina since the introduction of GM crops. These data confirm recent animal studies showing that GM corn and the herbicides sprayed on it caused a dramatic increase in cancer in the same strain of rats used in FDA drug safety tests. Another large study showed an increase in severe stomach inflammation in pigs caused by GM feed containing insecticidal toxins, a condition that would likely lead to cancer in humans.
Since it takes many years for diseases such as cancer to appear, we could be reaching that point in time after the introduction of GM crops. What has been the reaction in the rest of the world to this and similar information?
The European Union has tightened its GM food safety testing requirements as consumers continue to reject GM foods, resulting in the withdrawal of investment from two large GM seed producers, Monsanto and BASF. India, Peru, Bolivia, the Philippines and Mexico have issued moratoria on GM food crops to go along with Japan, South Korea and a large number of other countries.
Scientists in Russia have proposed a total ban on all GM products. And China, which initially embraced the technology, is having an extended debate about GM crops. The world's food authority, Codex Alimentarius, agreed in 2011 that GM food labels are justified to trace back any adverse health effects of GMOs.
As a result of these new revelations about GM technology, the industry is making a major public relations effort to promote itself, often falsely claiming that there is a "consensus" among scientists that the technology is safe.
In reality, there is no evidence that GM food is safe for human consumption, nor is there any consensus on this topic within the scientific community.
It is critical for the public to educate itself about the realities of GMOs and not be fooled by the rhetoric from companies that sell it.
Most of the world has studied this issue and concluded that GMOs are not worth the risk. Passing GM labeling initiatives in states will be the initial demonstration that the public understands what is at stake.
At the very least, labeling may help reverse the unsustainable trend in this country towards ever increasing industrial GMO farming.