Food security and sovereignty are increasingly in the news these days. The former means that a country has reliable access to sufficient calories to feed its population, while food sovereignty suggests that the community has control over the way food is produced, traded and consumed. Why should we, in Canada, be concerned over either concept given that we have seemingly endless land on which to grow and raise food, a relatively low population per square kilometer, and highly developed supply chains that can speed it from farm to fork in a matter of days?
Well, we should care—a lot. These days, food seems to be regularly in the news and not always in a good way, from Alberta droughts to accounts of the toll that the sharp decline in global dairy prices exacts on producers in countries that mistakenly saw continually increasing exports as the surest way to financial security.
Canadian producers also understand that our supply managed production is under attack in various international negotiations, from the CETA with the EU to the TPP that is being negotiated with eleven other countries in the Pacific region. In both negotiations, competitors hope to set Canada’s food production agenda in their own interests. This would compromise our made-in-Canada system, and our food sovereignty.
For example, if supply management were negotiated away, chicken producers would have to deal with the U.S. system, which places production responsibility on the producer alone, leaving the processor and the supermarket to reap the benefits of an unequal relationship. American critics like Doug Constance have called this “the Southern Model,” suggesting that it “is a form of sharecropping that replaced slavery in the U.S. South as the dominant form of agriculture production.” Farmers are always on tenterhooks (and the defensive) as to whether or not they will have a remunerative market to sell to.
Indeed, the issue of asymmetric relationships is one of the primary reasons supply management was introduced in the first place. How was it possible that family farmers could deal equitably with the 1960s equivalent of Loblaw, Zehrs or Walmart? In short, they could not then and they cannot now. It is supply management, involving multiple stakeholders including supermarkets, consumers, producers and processors, which levels that playing field. Egg and dairy farmers in countries like Australia and the UK, and poultry producers in the United States, face very uncertain times as they attempt to strike appropriate deals with mega-supermarkets and processors.
I would suggest we don’t want these imported ways of doing business that severely disadvantage farmers and don’t benefit consumers, any more than we want chicken, eggs, milk or turkey from foreign places to crowd out our Canadian product on our grocery store shelves.
The demise of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) suggests what might happen should supply management disappear. The former CWB is now owned by a Saudi Arabian investment fund and an American agri-food company, and wheat farmers are certainly not ahead of the game. Most producers, if media accounts are correct, pine for the good old days of the single desk marketer. Farmers in that new world have had to become marketers, transporters, selling agents and whole host of other occupations. And the “little guy” is in serious jeopardy.
Supply management is a good system that works with farmers to allow them to make a living wage, while providing an excellent product at a competitive price for consumers.
And why should producers not earn a small profit for their effort? We hear a lot in the media about how expensive our supply managed commodities are compared to their U.S. counterparts, but the latter remain heavily subsidized, with the latest Farm Bill promising U.S. $1 trillion worth of subsidies to American agriculture over 10 years. And costs of production are much lower than those found in Canada for a variety of reasons. Climate is a major one, as is U.S. immigration policy, or rather, the lack thereof. Indeed, a 2015 report from Texas A&M University hypothesized that the cost of a gallon of milk in the US would have to increase by 90 per cent without cheap immigrant labour.
Supply management provides Canadians with 100 per cent food security in the sectors in which it operates, while reflecting Canadian values and culture and contributing to food sovereignty. We don’t need foreign imports in this case. As the old expression has it, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”