LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Consumer reports indicate time is right to move beyond cheap food

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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December19, 2003: The Alberta Barley Commission’s Annual General Meeting last week in Red Deer, Alberta, gave me an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on prairie farming and to speak about the need to get farming beyond cheap food, beyond a narrow focus on the production of bulk undifferentiated commodities.

Alberta’s approach to research and innovation differs from Ontario’s. Some time ago they turned tax dollars designated for research and innovation over to an institute at arms length from government and encouraged scientists and innovators to compete for those dollars. Ontario has long used a direct contract between the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the University of Guelph while the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario provides guidance on priorities. Alberta has now added a research and innovation strategic framework that targets, on the one hand, a modest increase in farm gate receipts while calling for sustainable agriculture with an eye on consumer interest in “natural, wholesome and safe products.” On the other hand the framework proposes a doubling of economic activity in the food chain beyond the farm gate in just a decade. The emphasis is not on “still more raw materials.”

A presentation by the polling firm Ipsos- Reid documented the changing interests and concerns of Canadians about food. The highlights included:

  • The number of consumers who make a meal from scratch everyday is down to twenty-seven percent (27%).
  • Half of Canadians now hold the food industry, not individual consumers who choose foods, responsible for the number of products sold that are high in fat and lead to obesity.
  • Almost half (48%) believe in taxing high fat foods while thirty-nine percent (39%) believe in financial incentives for those who choose healthy meals.
  • The rising concern about food safety was described as an extension of the public’s concern about environmental management.
  • There is a growing interest in full disclosure about food, meaning not just what is in it but also the processes used in preparation. In this context, organic food is the most watched trend in the food sector.
  • Concern about genetically modified food is changing from an environmental issue to a food safety issue.
  • Younger, better educated and Canadians with higher incomes are the drivers of these changes.

The presentation about the Alberta Agricultural Research Institute and the latest consumer polling provided a great context for my own talk on the need to get farming beyond cheap food. Food is cheap enough. Going organic is one option but not for everyone. Gordon Gatward told the CFFO convention late in November about LEAF Marque, Linking Environment and Farming in the U.K. that has added six percent (6%) to the gross margin of participating farmers. The Christian Farmers Federation’s proposal for a small charge on the retail price of food to fund environmental payments deserves attention. Some Canadian farmers are accessing higher priced European markets by certifying with EUREP GAP. This is an internationally accepted standard for exporting fresh produce to Europe based on good agricultural practices such as Integrated Crop Management and Integrated Pest Management.

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Statistics Canada's report on net farm income for 2002

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