LETTER FROM ONTARIO
2003: A Year of Big Changes for Farming

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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December 31, 2003: The year 2003 ushered in big changes for farmers. The consequences, both good and bad, will reach far beyond the New Year.

Provincially, it's the Nutrient Management Act and the different approach envisaged by our new Liberal government. Nationally, there's the Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization program, recently confirmed by federal/provincial signatures. Internationally, one sick cow has rewritten the future for Canadian beef production and other ruminants.

"Refocused" is a good way to think about our new Liberal government's plans for the Nutrient Management Act. No longer will the regulations under this act be agriculture's primary contribution to environmental stewardship. Source water protection rules are coming, designed to implement all the recommendations of the Walkerton Inquiry into the tainted water tragedy. Not only will this refocus enforcement responsibilities on the Ministry of Environment: more significantly, nutrient management rules will start off farm, pushing into the background the balance between on-farm nutrients and crop needs.

"Permanent" is a good way to think about the just-signed federal-provincial Canadian Agricultural Income Stabilization program. This is a good attempt to overcome the need for ad hoc programs triggered almost annually by crises due to weather calamities or price disasters, and a much-improved approach to stabilizing farm incomes. When prices or production collapse, governments are committed to substantial support. What's the hitch? Payments will be based on the average of previous years -- and we know that those averages are set to continue their long pattern of decline.

"Unreal" is the catastrophic impact of one sick cow in Alberta. Ad hoc guidelines developed in response to an outbreak of epidemic proportions in Great Britain have been implemented holus-bolus in response to one sick cow. The tortuous process of writing new, more appropriate international trade rules for countries with a documented low level of mad cow disease, just got longer and more convoluted -- the result of the identification of one BSE dairy cow in Washington State.

On the surface, our food system has become a maze of contradictory messages. One sick cow in Alberta -- the U.S. slams its border shut to good Canadian beef. One sick cow in Washington -- American beef remains safe and wholesome. The search for the source of the infection is just an abundance of caution, and designed to strengthen safeguards and firewalls. At a deeper level, the adoption of industrial approaches to food safety and promises of "satisfaction guaranteed or your money refunded" has created expectations of "no risk" in the food system. But, food starts out as living organisms -- plants and animals. Claims of "no risk" are out of reach. We have created expectations the food system cannot meet.

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