Standing up to commodity agriculture

By Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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OCTOBER 31, 2002: What trends contribute to the weakening of farming in Ontario? Farming's declining share of the consumer food dollar was rated the highest by the participants in the "Gearing Up for a Better Future" workshop series organized by the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario last winter.

Eighty-eight percent agreed strongly (68%) or somewhat (20%). About 250 members and friends of CFFO participated in the 18 sessions across the province.

Dig a little deeper into trends that are weakening Ontario agriculture and the conversation inevitably turns to commodity agriculture and the drive to become more efficient in order to live with lower prices.

Commodity agriculture has been a driving force in Ontario agriculture for decades. It has held back many other approaches to farming with its willingness to live by the law of the jungle, externalize environmental and community costs, push the technology treadmill still faster and preach free markets and open trade while constantly begging for production subsidies in the form of cash, infrastructure, research and regulations.

Commodity agriculture has survived, in part because it has been willing to accept some civilizing, some formalizing. Think of best management practices, livestock management guidelines, nutrient management plans, quality assurance programs and environmental farm plans.

Change is afoot. Consider the growing list of approaches to farming that have emerged in the past decades: community supported agriculture, diversified and value-added agriculture, lifestyle agriculture, organic agriculture, supply managed agriculture, sustainable agriculture and voluntary stewardship agriculture.

They are more than surviving. They are growing. Commodity agriculture's ability to dominate has been undercut.

That is a good thing. The door is open for a new vision for Ontario agriculture. CFFO's emerging vision is: Farming in Ontario will be diverse and integrated into a full range of human and natural activities--family life, community culture, economic development and natural habitat-on a scale that enhances countryside and is sustainable.

Is this vision worthy, workshop participants were asked? Seventeen percent of participants expressed doubts about this vision. They were skeptical about success, defensive about the status quo or flagged consequences that troubled them.

But sixty-five percent agreed that this vision was worthy, many without hesitation (30%) and some (9%) out of a sense of "I see no other choice." A small group (8%) supported the vision but in the same breath asked for details and practical next steps. Nineteen percent applauded the vision and added a "but" or a worry about its implications. We are ready to stand up to
commodity agriculture.