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Sixty Years of Empowering Farmers

The divergent needs of farmers must be respected


January 15, 2008
By Jack Wilkinson

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“The divergent needs of farmers must be respected. A balance must be struck between those whose livelihoods depend on more open global markets and those who are serving their domestic markets and whose production is regulated.”

When the International Federation of Agricultural Producers meets for its 37th World Farmers’ Congress in Seoul, Korea, May 13-19, 2006, over 400 farm leaders from 80 countries will address the theme: “60 years of empowering farmers.” The Congress will challenge national governments, international organizations and the donor community to work with farmers to address domestic farm policy issues brought about by rapid globalization. It is critical that we find ways to increase farm incomes both in developing and developed countries.

The lack of balance in the current international trading system is a concern for IFAP member organizations. IFAP is committed to working towards achieving a balanced and equitable outcome in the WTO trade negotiations. The divergent needs of farmers must be respected. A balance must be struck between those whose livelihoods depend on more open global markets and those who are serving their domestic markets and whose production is regulated. Benefits of trade for an increasingly concentrated food industry must not be at the expense of farmers, particularly small scale producers in developing countries. It’s vital that we keep the agricultural stage from being dominated by a few large players at the expense of the majority of farmers.

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Canada has a lot at stake in ensuring balance prevails. Indeed, Canadian agriculture is the embodiment of balance – with grains, oilseeds, cattle and swine producers looking to expand their access to markets around the world, while producers in horticulture and supply-managed sectors like eggs and dairy are focused on ensuring continued access to domestic markets.

Our experience with regulated food production systems means that Canadian farmers have another important role to play with regard to achieving balance in agricultural policies. This is transferring our knowledge and experience in creating strong farm organizations to our counterparts in the developing world. A real challenge lies in the fact that many small-scale farmers are losing out on access to export markets because they cannot comply with the demands from multinational corporations for food traceability systems that are part of their consumer protection programs. These farmers are even losing their domestic markets as supermarkets source product from outside the country; they are losing the income they need to sustain their families and their communities.
Key to stemming and reversing this trend and to helping improve the standard of living in the developing world is to empower agricultural producers to form local and national organizations that can create “made at home” solutions for issues like food safety and traceability. Together, they can pool resources to develop low-cost traceability systems, which will allow them to sell their products much more broadly. These groups are also critical for farmers to be able to negotiate better prices.

Canadian marketing institutions like the wheat board, supply management, and experience in single desk selling, are models developing world farmers can learn from. They have stood the test of time for decades in Canada. Supply management matches production to consumption to prevent market-distorting surpluses, and allows farmers to receive a fair price from the marketplace. At the same time, consumers have a dependable supply of quality products. This has eliminated major fluctuations in prices for farmers, processors and consumers. It is a model that can certainly be emulated and adapted to
help agriculture industries in developing nations become more self-reliant. 

Our Canadian Wheat Board has maximized returns to prairie farmers in a cut-throat world market. Other market structures in horticulture and hogs have given producers the ability to maximize returns in a diverse set of market situations and we should be strengthening these to take on new challenges in the market. Canadian and developing world farmers have a common interest in making sure that regulated food production models continue to be a part of the agricultural trade mix. Our mutual focus is to improve the income of farmers worldwide.

Empowering farmers worldwide with strong, effective market systems will allow us to meet the needs of an increasingly demanding consumer, while ensuring that family agriculture is the mainstay of world agriculture.

Achieving a balanced position in global trade is crucial for the development of global agriculture and to ensure that it brings real benefits to all farmers. We need to move forward in a positive way that gives market opportunity and increases transparency in trade, while ensuring flexibility in marketing systems. We should remember that producers around the world, whether in Canada or Kenya, are all in this together. Regardless of our differences, we do share many goals: to grow a good product, make a fair living, provide for our families, and strengthen the agricultural economy to which we all belong. 

Jack Wilkinson is the president of the International Federation of Agricultural Producers.
 This May, the IFAP is celebrating 60 years of existence.