LETTER FROM ONTARIO
A small charge, big benefits

Can raising the retail price of food actually bridge the farmer and the consumer? We believe it can.

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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October 31, 2003: The Christian Farmers Federation's vision document proposes: "The establishment of a small charge on the retail sale of food in Ontario to pay for environmental services and joint farmer/consumer initiatives."

Last winter our workshops: "Planning for Action to Save the Family Farm," evaluated this action plan. About 215 members and friends of CFFO participated in 19 sessions across the province. They thought a levy on food was a good idea.

For most of the participants the concept was very new. Their skepticism showed in their early questions: "We need details. Who collects the levy? How will the money be distributed?"

In a conversation about barriers to getting support for the levy, workshop participants identified consumers, farmers, politicians and retailers -- -in other words, just about everyone--as likely sources of resistance. Thirty-one percent thought consumers would resist because they have more pressing issues and the levy would be seen as just another tax. Twenty-five percent thought that farmers themselves would resist since it would make consumers more demanding; they expected vigorous squabbling about who would get the environmental payments. Fourteen percent thought that the other players would resist: the general public because changing the status quo is a hard sell; retailers because a farmer-consumer partnership could become a threat to their control; and politicians because they would lose some influence. It is proposed that a farmer-consumer partnership -- not government -- control the funds raised by a levy.

These barriers did not dampen the conversation about opportunities that a levy and environmental payments could create. Thirty-three percent thought that the environment and the countryside would be improved. Thirty percent thought that farmers would have better incomes and a better public image. Twenty percent thought that consumers would be empowered to contribute to the environment and would gain from the development of a creative farmer-consumer partnership.

At the end of the session on the proposed levy, participants were asked if they were "willing to pay a small levy on food to create a new source income for farming and the countryside." Eighty-nine percent said yes!

After just one discussion, such a high level of support from farmers willing to personally pay such a levy was very telling. Many caught the vision: a small levy on food has the potential to be a powerful bridge between farmers and consumers -- a strong enough bridge to balance the emerging economic clout of those very few large food firms that control food between the farm gate and the dinner plate. The idea had intrinsic appeal to workshop participants. It is possible to believe that such a bridge will hold a similar appeal to consumers.

 

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