Saskatchewan, Canada, June 21, 2004: It
was quite a faux pas for the Leader of the Opposition. While
on the campaign trail in Saskatoon, in Canada's agricultural
heartland, Steven Harper refused to answer a reporter's question
about agriculture, saying he was not there to talk about his
farm policies. The puzzled reporter wondered how this might
look to prairie farmers. Harper claimed he didn't need to
be concerned since prairie farmers were solidly behind him
There may be another reason the Conservative leader didn’t
want to talk agriculture. This can be found in the official
party platform, displayed on the Conservative's website. Or,
rather, it can't be found there, because the only mention
of agriculture in the entire platform is a one-line promise
to "support Canada's farmers, fishers, and forestry workers".
Another part of the website contains a list of "issues".
The "issue" of agriculture is explained like this:
"The Conservative Party will fight for farmers. We will
protect farmers against conditions outside their control and
vigorously defend them in international trade negotiations."
Not exactly enough to fill a book. But, speaking of books,
what does the Liberal Red Book say about agriculture? Rather
than describe its plans for agriculture, the Liberal's official
platform lists Liberal accomplishments. It cites the aid packages
for drought, BSE and avian influenza, and claims the government
has "worked steadily" to get the American and other
borders open to Canadian beef. This brief paragraph is all
the Liberal's 58-page platform has to say about agriculture,
save for a promise in another section to "strengthen
the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration".
Oddly enough, the party least likely to get much support
in rural western Canada has the most to say about agriculture.
The New Democratic Party devotes two full pages of its 66-page
party platform to agriculture. The NDP takes swings at NAFTA,
claiming it is not working for agriculture and other industries.
It promises to protect the Canadian Wheat Board and Canada's
supply managed sectors, enhance safety nets, increase farm
support to counter American and European subsidies, ban GM
wheat and increase value-added processing for farm products.
All this is stuff most farmers would agree with, but the
NDP has been unable to make substantial gains in rural seats
in western Canada in recent elections.
The Conservative silence on agriculture is disturbing. Most
western farmers know little about what the party would do
for agriculture, yet may be poised to vote for it. The only
specific Conservative policy commonly known is the party's
resolve to eliminate the CWB by ending single desk selling.
The silence is understandable though. The awful problem the
Conservatives face is rooted in their ideology. Conservatives
believe that freeing the marketplace to do its job is the
best way to operate an economy. For agriculture, this means
more trade agreements and less government subsidies. It means
telling farmers to adapt or perish. It means increased farm
size and ever-greater reliance on technology. Now, don't get
me wrong. A Conservative government with seats in rural areas
would not likely abandon safety nets or cut the emergency
aid to farmers. A Conservative government would probably treat
agriculture much like Paul Martin has: hand over some cash
and natter away at the U.S.
The only problem with this is that we've tried it all before
and it doesn’t work. Despite years of blaming European
and American farm subsidies, despite years of attempting to
negotiate world trade deals, despite vast monies poured into
value-added enterprises and dumped into fertilizers, chemicals,
new machinery, improved seeds and every other kind of technological
fix, the farm crisis continues. Farms survive because of one
thing only: off-farm work.
And lest Canadian farmers feel bad, their well-endowed American
counterparts are really very little better off. But, compared
to farmers in India, Korea, Russia and Afghanistan, Canadian
and American farmers live in luxury's lap. Those folks are
just getting started down the road of rural depopulation,
increased mechanization and competition from subsidized foreign
producers. In only a few decades, they should have farm economies
as good as ours, with just as many farmers on the land!
The problem for the Conservatives is that, where farming
is concerned, their ideology just doesn't work. Not just in
Canada, mind you, but the world over. Or does it?
Agriculture fuels a huge part of the economy, quite literally.
Because farmers all over the world don't make an adequate
living, consumers in the rich parts of the world can have
cheap and abundant food. Cheap food allows people large amounts
of leisure time, and money to spend in those idle hours. An
economy where farmers were well paid for producing food might
look quite different. It might also be politically more volatile.
(Consider how much fuss the Consumers Association of Canada
regularly makes over the price of supply-managed eggs and
Sadly, the agriculture policy of most governments around
the world is intellectually and morally bankrupt. It fits
the oft-quoted definition of insanity: doing the same thing
over and over again, expecting different results. It is this
way because it is set not by farmers or in their interest,
but by the vast array of folks that live off farmers. Agriculture
works just fine for the Cargill's and Louis Dreyfus's of the
In the current federal election, it doesn’t look like
that will change.
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.