Innovation and the Return to Farming

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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August 27, 2003: Canada's first mad cow has created turmoil -- and long-term consequence -- in the Canadian beef sector. The market for beef will be reinvented. Livestock agriculture's protocols for foreign animal diseases will be redefined. The value of trade agreements and our relationships with trading partners will be realigned. It will be one more catalyst forcing Canadian agriculture into a much-needed scrutiny of the agri-food system that emerged in the past century.

For more than a quarter century, agriculture has focused on production. Innovation has pushed technology and management systems that produce more food with fewer inputs at ever-declining profit margins for farm entrepreneurs. Whether we measure bushels of grain per acre for row crops, pounds of gain per day for livestock, or liters of milk per lactation for dairy cows, innovation in agriculture has been dramatic.

Innovation has delivered a low-cost food production system. We have cheap food. Did it deliver a desirable food system?

For some time, North American defenders of cheap food have been wagging their fingers at the European Union's refusal to import our low-cost beef because our livestock are fed growth-promoting medications. Europeans reject our soybeans unless we can certify that they are free of genetic modification. Our spokespersons attribute European wariness to their experience with mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, and other food scares. Eventually, under pressure from trade challenges, if necessary, the Europeans will come to their senses and return to food policies based on sound science - so goes the rhetoric.

What if the European approach is the latest innovation about to reinvent our food system?

Consider the call, back in June, by MacDonald's Corporation for its meat suppliers worldwide to phase-out animal growth-promoting antibiotics used in human medicine. MacDonald's is fostering real, tangible change in its supply community by asking its producers -- who supply over 2.5 billion pounds of chicken, beef and pork annually -- to take action that MacDonald's believes will ultimately help protect public health.

A statement by the Coalition for Animal Health, representing twelve U.S. livestock organizations, cautioned about actions not grounded in science: "We remain committed to a rigorous science-based regulatory process." They note that all the antibiotics MacDonald's wants out of its supply chain have been approved by government regulatory bodies. They are safe.

MacDonald's Corporation dresses up its innovation as social responsibility. It claims to be putting others first -- society before profit maximization. Prevention rather than limited liability.

Our agricultural system - production agriculture -- emerged in the past century emphasizing short-term profits, scientific potential rather than public expectations, risk assessment rather than ethical responsibility. Embracing this innovation, social responsibility, on our farms means a return to being farmers first, and producers second.



Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.