Saturday, February 12, 2011

Food Freedom Day holds sad message on farming

By Laura Rance / Rural Revival Column / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS / 2011.02.12 

In case you hadn't noticed, today is Food Freedom Day, the calendar date by which the average Canadian has earned enough to pay their entire year's grocery bill -- and that includes booze.

In 2010, the average Canadian spent approximately 11.9 per cent of personal disposable income on food. And even though food prices are skyrocketing around the world, the situation in Canada is unlikely to change a whole lot in the foreseeable future.

The country's largest farm group says that's something worth celebrating.

"Canadian farmers are proud of their role in providing high-quality food produced to top-level food safety, environmental, and animal-welfare standards," Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett says in a release.

"Food Freedom Day demonstrates the value that Canadian farmers deliver to all Canadians -- not only through quality food, but by supporting one in eight jobs, which in turn translates into vital economic contributions for our rural communities. Our agri-food industry is a key driver of socioeconomic prosperity in Canada, and one in which investments return many times over," the CFA release says.

Heck, our food is so cheap in this country, recent studies have shown we can afford to throw half of it away.

But before you start hip-hip-hooraying all the way to the grocery store, you might want to pause to consider the price we pay for food freedom.

It sounds counterintuitive, but there are some who argue policies that promote cheap food are partly to blame for the food riots caused by the recent spike in food prices.

Food crisis stories filled the wire services last week, telling us the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Food Price Index on Feb. 3 touched its highest level since officials began keeping records in 1990.

The index rose for the seventh month in a row to 231 in January, topping the peak of 224.1 in June 2008, when the world was last gripped in a food crisis. But as recently as 2002, prices were at a 50-year low.

"Since the 1950s, chronic underinvestment in agriculture has been considered a normal feature of a healthy, growing economy. A successful farm policy is one that delivers cheap food to urban consumers, whatever the cost at the producing end," Nick Cullather, author of The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle Against Poverty in Asia, writes in a recent Globe and Mail column.

The result of that policy has been a chronically unprofitable production system, one that has to be subsidized by farmers, the environment and governments (at least those that can afford it).

Relative to other sectors, agriculture has also been underfunded in research.

Granted, the Egyptian situation was a powder keg looking for a match before food prices took a sharp turn upwards. But the rising cost of bread sparked riots that ultimately brought down a government, and worried foreign-policy advisers the world over.

Closer to home, the Canadian Agriculture Policy Institute (CAPI) released a new report on Canada's food system last week that points out Canadian farmers and ranchers lost money from the marketplace in seven years out of the past decade. Taxpayers fill in the gaps with so-called "business risk management" subsidies, which CAPI suggests stabilize the status quo, rather than providing incentives for farmers to do what is necessary to make their businesses profitable.

The CAPI report also zeroed in on the health-care budget dilemma.

Health-care costs could be consuming up to 70 per cent of provincial budgets in a few short years, and many of the diseases drawing on those budgets -- heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer -- are linked to diet and lifestyle.

Then there's the question of sustainability. Are our production systems, highly dependent on non-renewable resources, up to the challenge of maintaining or increasing production? CAPI calls for a co-ordinated federal food strategy, starting with the formation of a cabinet committee on food. "The status quo is unacceptable. Canada's agri-food industry has the natural and human resources to do much better -- yet Canada risks sleeping right through its greatest potential," the report says.

Cullather says the world's farmers can meet the challenges of a growing population and climate change, but not without a change in how we perceive agriculture's role.

"A lasting fix will require more than an adjustment to allow cultivators to survive. It will require unlearning a half century of dogma that relegates agriculture to a subordinate status. The global economy includes the global countryside, and the return of prosperity will have to begin there," Cullather says.

Kind of puts a damper on Food Freedom Day, doesn't it?

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached by email:


  1. Interesting article. Here in North America, we take our cheap food, just like we take our cheap fuel for granted. Her article brought up things about our mutual systems I had not considered.

  2. We tend to take things for granted here when food is plentiful and affordable for most of us. Some real "food for thought."

  3. I agree. I think we're headed for the "Perfect Storm" in agriculture. In the U.S. they're taking about eliminating subsidies for farmers. With rising fuel and fertilizer prices I don't see how farms will survive even if they are large corporate enterprises. A few droughts and floods could make things quit ugly.

  4. When it comes to agriculture and food, we've been living in a world of radical stupidity for so long, that we have lost touch with reality.

  5. Cheap food and cheap fuel is the government's "Bread and circuses" to keep the great unwashed happy and disinterested in interfering.
    Corn is really jumping again. Grope and Maul article said $7 today and maybe $10 before we are done.
    Good for grain farmers in North America but not for livestock farmers anywhere in the world.
    And not good for food prices everywhere in the world either

  6. If the Government work for cheaper food and medicines, people will ensure their good life.


Comments are encouraged. But if you include a commercial link, it will be deleted. If you comment anonymously, please use a name or something to identify yourself. Trolls will be deleted