(October 21, 2012) Western Canada’s ranchers, along with consumers across Canada, and around the world are learning about corporate concentration courtesy of the recall of beef from the XL slaughter plant in Brooks, Alberta.  Many were surprised that better than 80% of Canada’s beef processing is controlled by two companies and concentrated in just two gigantic factories.

This concentration is no surprise to grain farmers who successfully dealt with the same situation in the 1920s by forming their own grain handling cooperatives and their own exclusive sales department, called the Canadian Wheat Board.

Contrasting the experience of the two sectors is instructive.  Western cattle farmers inherited the cleanest beef cattle herd on the planet, grazed under the most natural conditions possible, in arguably the cleanest environment in the world.

Grain farmers started from a dust bowl and were at the mercy of just five giant companies which exploited every technical loophole to take the value of the grain from the farmers who produced it.  Ongoing swindles around grading grain quality, dockage, and weights got so bad farmers succeeded in having a whole institution, the Canadian Grain Commission set up under federal law to protect them from the predatory practices of the private trade.  This organization is now scheduled for further gutting in the Harper governments new 500 page omnibus budget bill.

With the Canadian Wheat Board acting as their exclusive sales agent western grain farmers also protected themselves from the predatory marketing practices of the private trade.  Farmers used their Wheat Board to carve out a global niche of providing the highest quality grain to the best paying customers in the world.  The CWB did this by establishing a worldwide reputation for honesty, reliability and quality control based on making it clear pure Canadian grain was better than all the rest.

Posters across Asia and Europe in native languages

In contrast, the just announced takeover of XL Beef by Sao Paulo-based JBS SA, the world’s largest beef processor just provides a pause in the continuing dilution of the reputation and identity of Alberta beef not to mention more corporate concentration for ranchers to face.

However, blaming the private trade is too easy.  Western ranchers have squandered the reputation they inherited through their continual inability to organize and defend their own interests.  A fine example is “country of origin labelling.”  While western wheat and barley farmers always advertised their Canadian country of origin to enhance their brand’s assurance of quality, astro-turf organizations speaking for the “cattle industry” vociferously opposed country of origin labelling by their biggest customer, the United States, missing an opportunity to mimic grain farmers by capitalizing on their own Canadian origin.  This opportunity would have benefitted western ranchers, but did nothing to enhance the profits of the two North American oriented beef slaughtering companies.

The other company which slaughters beef is one very familiar to grain farmers:  Cargill.  Like JBS, Cargill is a family owned company with worldwide interests. Thanks to the end of the farmer-owned Canadian Wheat Board by the Harper Conservatives, grain farmers have lost the market power they had to balance the market power of the giant corporations that still dominate the world grain trade.  Western ranchers and grain farmers now serve the same lords of the manor.  The only change from feudal times is the new lords are corporations half a continent away and their walls are made of glass and compliant governments, instead of the stones and iron of previous centuries.


As these giant companies seek to maximise their own profits, watch the quality of Canadian grain decline and its distinct identity and high-quality reputation disappear, which is what happened to Alberta beef.  For farmers Canada no longer exists:  we now live in “Albertastan” courtesy of the Harper Conservatives.

However, all is not lost.  Once again western grain farmers are organizing to protect themselves by taking Harper to court over the destruction of our Wheat Board.  The Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board have a legal firm which is  preparing all the necessary documentation for the Supreme Court of Canada and you can contribute to the legal costs here.

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