Saskatchewan, Canada, November 24, 2003: A half-dozen
years ago, I attended a presentation by Lester Brown, then
head of the World Watch Institute. Brown was determined to
convince his audience of prairie farmers that the problem
of surplus food production resulting in low prices was only
temporary. The key reason for this, in his mind, was the potential
for China to, in Brown's words, "starve the world".
Speculation was that increasing population and growing demand
for meat would result in China requiring all of the grain
currently traded on world markets.
Nor was the problem only limited to China. An expanding global
population would eventually result in chronic food shortages
and demand that could not be filled. The solution, Brown said,
was first to control population growth in all countries, and
second, to increase food production using all and any means
At least one farmer listening to Brown in that room was secretly
and guiltily hoping that the predicted apocalypse would occur,
and the sooner, the better.
Like most predictions of the end of the world as we know
it, Brown's version of gastronomical Armageddon proved to
be a bit premature. While China does import significant amounts
of grain some years, it also exports significant amounts,
particularly of feed grains. True, China's population is urbanizing
and that generally leads to higher meat consumption and hence
higher overall demands for grain, but China has by-and-large
shown itself able to increase production as demand rises.
Canadian farmers once harbored the myopic notion that we
were the "breadbasket of the world". One of the
unfortunate results of globalization has been that we can
no longer delude ourselves about our importance in the scheme
of world survival. The world has many breadbaskets, some with
far greater potential than Canada. Brazil, for example, is
said to have one-fifth of the world arable land. It is land
that is fertile and underutilized by western standards. Nor
is Brazil lacking in technology. Many Brazilian farms differ
little from those in Canada and the U.S.
Rather than starve, it appears that those people of the world
with the money to purchase food or with economic and political
structures that encourage food production will have food a-plenty.
It pains me to rain on this parade of global good news, but
for farmers this is hardly a happy expectation. A world with
lots of food is a world much like this one – a world
where low prices cause a cycle of over-production and thus
make the situation worse.
The continuous talk, then, of increasing exports as the way
to increase farm incomes in Canada is quite difficult to swallow.
Our food exports have increased dramatically, while farm prosperity
has not followed. This fact lends some credence to the argument,
often made by those opposing current global trade initiatives,
that focusing on exports is of great help to the transnational
companies that control the world grain trade, but not of much
use to actual farmers.
The solution posed by some is to focus on producing for domestic
demand and relying less on trade. A country like Canada is
in a difficult position under this scenario since our production
capability exceeds our relatively small population's ability
to consume. We do, however, have a few examples of limiting
production to the domestic market. This is found, of course,
in the supply managed poultry and dairy sectors.
Supply management relies on tariffs to keep out imports.
Such tariff protections are coming under increasing threat
from global trade agreements. Internally, in Canada, some
farm groups and groups like the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance
think they can benefit from destroying supply management.
In Ontario, one small group of dairy farmers wants to export
milk to the U.S. and is fighting supply management.
As a farmer, I am not involved in the supply managed sectors,
but I have always been aware that these producers generally
enjoy better incomes than other farmers. Equally appealing,
these incomes have been derived from consumers, rather than
from governments. True, there are problems with the supply-managed
sector, one being the cost of quota, which seems often to
exceed the real value. However, the price of land for the
rest of us also often exceeds its ability to produce.
Since the notion of exporting our way to prosperity seems
as unlikely as China starving the world, it may be time for
a careful examination of the benefits of controlling production.
The U.S. did this for many years with its Conservation Reserve
With a new leader set to take the stage in Ottawa, perhaps
there is an opportunity for Canada to examine the benefits
and problems associated with supply management. A single-minded
pursuit of the goal of increasing exports reminds me of one
definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and
over and expecting different results.
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com . The author
is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation
farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.