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Feeding the World

Increasing population – and a growing global middle class – means more opportunities for Canada’s poultry farmers, but accessing these markets will be complex


March 1, 2012
By Treena Hein

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As humanity tips over the seven billion mark and continues to grow, how are the world’s farmers and food producers going to amp up livestock and crop production in order to feed everyone?

This was the key question posed at the “Feeding a Hungry World: A Summit for Animal Agriculture,” held in October in Ottawa by Canada’s new Farm Care Foundation (FCF). The FCF funds educational and charitable programs that enhance public trust and confidence in Canadian food and farming.

Of course, this question is complicated, and leads to many other questions, so let’s first go over some background stats and insights. Summit presenter Charlie Arnot, who is the CEO at the Center for Food Integrity in Gladstone, Missouri, said that while agricultural productivity has obviously come a long way, its current annual 1.4 per cent increase is not enough. He said that globally, we must achieve higher yields and cropping densities, and bring more land into agricultural use. “We will have to produce more food by the end of this century,” he stated, “than we have in the last 10,000 years of food production combined.” 

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Maple Leaf Foods’ chief marketing officer Stephen Graham noted that in Canada, we face a strategic choice: to sell our land or to sell our food (which includes value-added food products). Several other speakers pointed out that Canada is a strategic global food production pivot point: compared to all other countries on Earth, Canada has a relatively large amount of all three of the pillars of food production — arable land, fresh water and energy.

 In order to feed the billions who will be born in coming decades, all globally available arable land will need to be farmed. But, as Chicken Farmers of Canada executive director Mike Dungate points out, some of this land has already been lost to agriculture. “When farmers can sell their land for a very high price, which is the case now in some parts of the world, they often choose to sell,” he says. “We have to therefore ensure that farming remains profitable. Once land is developed for other purposes, it’s generally never used for agriculture again.”

Dungate also observes that there’s a concentration of production of certain foods in certain parts of the world, and while this is understandable in terms of the comparative advantages of specific locations for specific crops, it’s a dangerous development. “Things like disease, natural disasters and armed conflict in one country or region can put the food security of the entire planet at risk,” he says. “So, we need all our agricultural land capacity in place not just in terms of volume, but also in terms of food production diversity.”

Poultry industry perspective
The question of how Canadian poultry producers within or potentially outside the supply-managed system could produce more food for export must be answered separately for eggs and poultry meat. Eggs are perishable, whereas meat can easily be frozen and shipped. However, Egg Farmers of Ontario general manager Harry Pelissero notes that advances in genetics and egg production efficiencies are going to continue to contribute to increased domestic food production and that can impact the rest of the world. “We’re producing the same number of eggs with a much lower number of hens than we did decades ago,” he says. “This frees up more land and resources for food production, and potentially for food export.”

In terms of how exports of poultry meat could be boosted, Dungate first observes that dark meat is already exported. “There is a white meat preference market here and in Europe and the U.S., whereas in Latin America, Asia and Africa, they prefer dark meat,” he explains. “We export dark meat to Asia and Africa right now, and we take the price that’s available.” Canadian processors export a small amount of white meat to the U.S., getting a similar price to that offered in the domestic market. In terms of poultry meat imports, Dungate says it is a little-known fact that Canada is the 14th largest importer of chicken in the world. “We import a minimum of 7.5 per cent of our market, tariff-free, from countries that meet our health and safety requirements,” he explains. “On top of that, we also import a large amount of value-added prepared-food products with less than 20 per cent meat content, such as frozen dinners, tariff-free.” 

Could we produce more chicken? Yes, says Dungate. “We could definitely up our capacity, but the demand has to be there. We would need to get a lot higher price for white meat than could be presently offered to become a white-meat exporter.” There is no “world price” for chicken, he says. Prices are negotiated between Canadian exporters and their foreign buyers, and they are different for white meat, dark meat, and all the other value-added products that are now available on the world market.

Al Mussell, senior research associate at the George Morris Centre (an agricultural think-tank in Guelph, Ont.), points out that there would be constraints to increasing poultry meat export volumes. “Canada ran into subsidization issues with dairy, and that could happen with chicken,” he notes. “It was concluded that Canada’s dairy supply management boards existed by virtue of government intervention and maintained domestic prices higher than world markets, and our dairy exports were subjected to price and volume limits under the 1994 World Trade Organization ‘Agreement on Agriculture.’” He says the same could happen with poultry.

He agrees that for Canada to increase poultry export volumes, there would have to be a much greater demand and also an increase in price offered, but adds that Canadian farmers don’t just compete on price around the world. “It’s about quality, and our food quality and safety are as good as or better than anywhere,” he says. “So things like meat can go from being a commodity to a specialty product, and prices are applied accordingly.” 

This leads to another important point, a point raised at the Summit. At the same time world population grows, poverty and scarcity in some areas are sure to worsen, and many people around the world are not going to be able to afford to buy meat. Indeed, many can’t now. There are protein isolate products such as Clarisoy (made from soybeans) about to be produced on a large scale, and the potential to create protein products from other crops is being actively investigated. At the same time, however, there is a growing middle class in India and many Asian countries – people with the spending power and desire to buy meat. To feed its growing middle class, China is raising more livestock (mostly pigs and poultry) than ever and importing more grain, forcing world grain prices upward (see article on China in this issue, page 28). There is also the question of whether farmers in the developed world should attempt to produce more food for the world, or whether first-world governments should be teaching the world to feed itself, as was done for China decades ago.

These questions, and others, will not be answered for a long time to come.


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