Monday, 26 October 2015

Where Will Your Milk Come From?

An election campaign isn't always the best time to be negotiating a huge international trade deal.  The just completed (but far from ratified) Trans Pacific Partnership became an important election issue in the just completed national campaign. Holstein cows walking in front of parliament hill became a potent symbol that dairy farmers were worried about the future of supply management, the regulated marketing system that limits production but assures farmers of fair prices. When the news of the deal broke the anxiety seemed misplaced. The Conservative government announced that Canada had given up just over 3% of the dairy market to imports, mostly from the United States and New Zealand. The strange part of the deal is that New Zealand had bet big on dairy exports to drive its economy (think Canada's oil sands without all the CO2). The Kiwi's were demanding access to the American market, and U.S. dairies in turn demanded access to Canada's.

There's a lot of confusion right now about the fine print in the deal, especially an escalator clause that kicks in after 5 years, and allows 1% per year increases in imports for 13 years. No one is sure if it's 1% of the total market, or 1% of the increase (the 3.25%), each year.  If it's the former then this deal is much worse than first expected.

The  other confusion is over the use of a hormone that allows cows to lactate (be milked) for longer than normal. rBST is allowed in the United States but not in Canada. Initially government sources said the U.S. milk that's imported would have to be free of rBST (meet the Canadian standards), but more recently Health Canada has backtracked and said it can't tell U.S. dairy farmers what they can do on their own farms.

A Quebec dairy farmers wrote an important commentary about Canada's milk quality versus he U.S.

Opinion: Consumers, beware the hidden costs of cheap dairy products

Dairy farmers take part in a protest in downtown Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. Dozens of dairy farmers from Ontario and Quebec gathered on Parliament Hill to raise concerns about protecting Canada's supply management system in the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS
The recent Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement proposes to further open the Canadian marketplace to U.S. dairy products. It is still unclear exactly what products will be coming across the border, and how they will find their way to our grocery shelves. Will they be packaged and clearly identified as products of the U.S.A.? Or will they be blended into your favourite yogurt or ice cream along with Canadian milk without so much as a mention on the label?
Why should it even matter?
Almost a decade ago, Canadian dairy farmers decided to harmonize our farms nation wide. This was no small feat. Agriculture is a provincial jurisdiction, meaning each province has its own regulatory framework for standards and procedures. It was a tremendous undertaking.
What exists now is the mandatory Canadian Quality Milk program. There are approximately 12,000 dairy farms across this country, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. My farm on Quebec’s GaspĂ© Peninsula is one of 6,200 dairy farms in this province. We all must meet the same strict milk quality and production requirements. Canadian “on farm” milk quality surpasses regulations for public health and safety.
We haven’t stopped there. Our latest undertaking is the ProAction initiative. We are integrating the strict requirements of our quality program in an ambitious framework including animal traceability, animal welfare, biosecurity and the environment.
Nobody compelled us to do this. We did it for the integrity of our farms, and the confidence of our consumers.
Herein lies my problem with the TPP agreement: No other country in the world has the obligation to satisfy the food expectations of Canadian consumers.
There is no compulsion for U.S. farmers to meet Canadian Quality Milk standards. In fact, depending on which state you are buying your milk in, the quality standards are completely different. There is a national minimum standard that must be respected under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but their minimum standards are considerably less stringent than ours.
We have also rejected the use of rBST (growth hormone) in this country; not so in the United States. Will rBST dairy be shipped into Canada? We will have to take U.S. exporters at their word on this, since rBST cannot be reliably detected in milk. It seems rather ridiculous to bother with Canadian regulations, if we are just going to shrug our shoulders and take an exporter’s word for it.
Canadians should also be concerned about the other values you can’t measure in a glass of milk, like protecting fresh water resources. California has been the poster child for globalized agri-food production. Everything from dairy to lettuce can be mass-produced cheaply under the year round Californian sun. Californians are now coming to grips with the fact that 80 per cent of their fresh water is pouring into agriculture; agri-business has unfettered and unregulated licence to drain the aquifer. And that’s exactly what they are doing.
How about social-justice issues like fair wages for farm labourers? There is a movement in the United States to address the terrible conditions that migrant workers face in the U.S. dairy sector. If you are interested in knowing how bad these conditions could possibly be, go to YouTube and search “Milk with Dignity.” Prepare to be stunned.
I am not vilifying American dairy farmers; they have had no choice but to adapt to their economic environment. If Canadian dairy farmers were to forgo our initiatives in quality and social responsibility, I’m sure we could make our milk more cheaply too.
Before we start celebrating the TPP’s access to dairy imports as a triumph for shoppers, consumers had better reconcile the hidden costs of cheap dairy.
 Jennifer Hayes is a dairy farmer in Shigawake, Que.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Finding Fairness for Small Farmers

It's great to hear the words "fair trade" linked to Certified Island Beef.  This is an extension of a beef marketing strategy that's been around for more than a decade now. It starts with what consumers are looking for and works its way back to the farm.  The Certified brand assures Triple A quality, no growth hormones, and humane handling.  This means it takes a little longer for steers to get to market weight, but farmers are paid extra to compensate.  The Certified product has been a big success in upscale Ontario markets, and it's now available through Sobeys here in the Maritimes. It's so important that Island farmers produce outside commodity markets where they can, and get rewarded for doing this. The "Certified" program is an excellent example of this.

There's another group of farmers who need some attention to the bottom line too: the market gardeners and small farmers who supply PEI's farmers' markets. I wrote this column with a suggestion about they might gain a little more income security:

Keeping Small Farmers in Business

They are the farmers everyone loves, the ones you see at farmers markets across the province. Chefs and foodies speak about them with reverence. For many consumers they’re the only “real” farmers they meet and talk to. We like them because they provide fresh produce and meat, often organic. They farm on a scale that many appreciate, harkening back to a simpler time of small mixed farms on the Island.  Here’s the but: if we like them that much we need to do more to make sure they stay in business.

Full disclosure: I have relatives who are market gardeners, and I did it myself for four years in the 1970’s before I realized I could make a much more stable living talking and writing about growing food .  (I still grow a large kitchen garden at home).

I wanted to write about this because I was privy to a conversation by four small farmers that ended in tears. They felt under enormous pressure to not only grow good food, but to also be that cheerful person who remembers everyone’s name, and has a story to tell about what they’re selling that week.  I don’t want to imply that these farmers resent the one-on-one with their customers,  they don’t, but it’s an extra job other farmers don’t have, and can chew up a lot of time and energy.

The other constant is that almost all small farmers are driven more by ideals and lifestyle than the bottom line. Most (not all) are one truck breakdown from bankruptcy.  Their costs aren’t huge, but they don’t have the scale of farming to build up surpluses when prices are good. It’s precarious at best. Does the fishing industry have an answer to this?

I had started my reporting career when Employment Insurance (Unemployment back then) benefits were extended to licensed fishermen (fishers if you wish). What I remember is then fisheries minister Romeo Leblanc was concerned that small boat cod fishermen in Newfoundland were starving during the winter, and obviously couldn’t do any jigging  in the frozen bays.

Now I appreciate that many people resent the fact that fishermen get EI.  I would argue that it’s the seasonal nature of their business that justifies the benefits, and that’s tied to one more important fact that often gets forgotten. The seasons are linked to the ecological health of the lobster stock, something you don’t see in Maine for example.  Maine lobstermen can fish year-round. In fact Maine fishermen are now making a virtue of harvesting molting lobsters (“new shell” is the marketing ploy), even though the lobsters have little meat,  are in the reproductive stage of their lives, and are vulnerable to predation  in holding facilities.

Perhaps a better example are oyster fishermen working public beds. They’re only allowed to use tongs, long double-handled rake-like tools, rather than mechanical dredging. It’s slow, hard work, but much more beneficial to the environment and the oysters themselves.  They have seasons as well. EI benefits are an important part of oyster fishermens’ yearly income.

So what about allowing smaller market farmers to get EI benefits?  Their work is definitely seasonal too. If we set certain production and  environmental standards, why shouldn’t they, like oyster fishermen, gain some income security too.

I realize this goes against  much of the political and economic  trends that slam seasonal work as something inferior, and anything that would promote it as simply wrong.  (I won’t be sending this column to Stephen Harper).   I tell my Toronto pals (2 of them) that  without EI, if the Bay Street boys had to pay enough so that oyster fishermen here could feed a family, only Toronto bankers could afford to go to the oyster bars they now enjoy.  This way oysters are reasonably priced, the stock is harvested responsibly, and fishermen have a chance to make a reasonable living.  What’s wrong with that?

I remember Paul Offer, a farmer’s market stalwart, giving a speech to a large, sympathetic group about four years ago.  His talk ended in tears too, as he tried to get people to understand the risk, hard work, aching back and legs, and total lack of financial security that had been his life for decades.  If we want small market farmers/gardeners who grow good food, maintain the quality of the soil, to be around for the long haul, not just until the bank won’t extend any further credit, we have to give them a chance at some financial stability.  I know it would be complex and difficult to create the regulations for something like this, but we need to talk about it. We’ll lose too many of the farmers we love without it.