LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Butter mountains and wine lakes
Technology and subsidies have led to a land of plenty and yet still not enough—Donkersgoed reviews the ideas of Edgar Pisani

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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May 20, 2005: I’m intrigued. I’ve known of the writing, thinking and activities of Edgar Pisani for only a few weeks, but already he has reinforced my view that the status quo for farming, our food system, our countryside and our environment cannot be the future.

Edgar Pisani served as Minister of Agriculture under France’s Charles de Gaulle in the early 60s. As one of the negotiators of the Common Agricultural Policy for the fledgling European Union, he held a front row seat during those years when the business of farming was transformed by one of the most dramatic waves of new technology. During the 60s, technology made it possible to double the output from a typical dairy farm with no additional physical labor. Dairymen merely needed to borrow the money to invest in a milking machine, a silo with an automatic feed un-loader and a push button gutter cleaner that mechanically swept the livestock manure out of the barn.

In the decades that followed, farm policy emphasized better science and more technology – the result? butter mountains and wine lakes in Europe, and surplus grain production in North America. Surplus production which resulted in lower prices. The resulting lower prices left farmers unable to invest in the next round of better science and more technology. Additional farm policy became necessary to support the better science, more technology policy – subsidies and more subsidies.

The subsidy farm policy is now severely criticized. A number of voices are proposing an alternative – “access to markets,” based on visions for a new trade deal supervised by the World Trade Organization. How this trade-based vision will solve agriculture’s problem mystifies me. European consumers don’t pay their farmers enough so that they can make ends meet. North American consumers don’t pay our farmers enough so that they can make ends meet. But if Europeans sell to our consumers and we sell to the Europeans, both groups of farmers will make ends meet??? Go figure – I can’t do the math.

I do believe that a trade deal under the auspices of the World Trade Organization can create a level playing field for farmers around the world, but it will be at prices for farm commodities at still lower levels than exist today – just check out the unsubsidized cost of production of the Brazilian producers.

Edgar Pisani’s ideas, on the other hand, are intriguing. He has created considerable public debate in France with his analysis – the business of farming has become marginalized to the economy and the common good, even though everyone needs to eat every day. A return to relevance requires a dramatic paradigm shift – a comprehensive policy that includes agriculture, the food system, the countryside and the natural environment. His central point is this: “The world needs all the agricultures of the world, and each country has a right to feed itself.”

His ideas have been translated into English in “An Old Man and the Land,” available from Legas Publishing. Visit www.legaspublishing.com.
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“An Old Man and the Land” is available for from Legas Publishing, 3 Wood Aster Bay, Ottawa, ON K2R 1B3, voice/fax: 613-823-1132, ordering Information: orders@legaspublishing.com

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