A gift from Ottawa

A gift from Ottawa

(February 26, 2015) When things go badly wrong for a politician a favorite tactic is to create a diversion and hope people focus there instead of on the mess in front of them. The people pulling Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s strings are masters at this. Farmers’ grain cheques cut in half and grain companies pulling off the greatest grain robbery in Canadian history? Blame the railways, everybody hates them anyway. Dealing with this nonsense is like playing “whack a mole” but a good deal less fun.

Now that the blame the railways game has worn thin the latest theme, conveniently provided by the Canada West Foundation, should be titled “don’t worry there is pie in the sky for you in the future.” They are doing so by hosting a propaganda exercise, grandiosely billed as a “symposium” at the end of April with the breathless title in all caps in case you missed it:

“THREE BILLION new consumers will need what the West has to offer. … Are we ready?
Feeding The New Global Middle Class. A Conversation That’s Never Happened Before About An Opportunity That’s Never Existed Before.”

This is pure twaddle. The single desk Canadian Wheat Board specialized in feeding the middle and upper classes of the world for decades before Ottawa’s Agriculture Minister killed it. The idea this is an opportunity that has never existed before is even more ridiculous. This same idea was fashionable in the 1970s. Been there, done that, and the results were a lot of my neighbours going bankrupt because they actually believed this sort of nonsense.

There is a long tradition in popular academia of claiming “if present trends continue” then disaster or prosperity is just around the corner. Luckily, present trends seldom continue. If they did everyone who gained a couple of pounds over Christmas would weigh several tonnes by Easter.

Usually these arguments come from the pessimists of the world. The Calvinist minister Thomas Malthus is one of the more famous. In 1798 he predicted that war and starvation were inevitable because population would always outstrip food production. Mechanization, birth control, and improved plant breeding fixed that for several centuries. Later the Club of Rome and Dr. Paul Erhlich talked of Limits to Growth and the Population Bomb respectively. In 1972 they claimed we were ten years away from global industrial collapse because of energy and materials shortages, population growth, and other calamities. Conservation, recycling, incremental technological improvements, and women’s empowerment put paid to that. Adjusted for inflation we have seen almost forty years of declining real prices for commodities – much to the consternation of farmers and other primary producers.

Some other examples are worth looking at. Instead of running out of ore for aluminum, bauxite mines are in fact closing around the world as the recycling of aluminum cans has reduced their life-cycle to a few days from use to re-use. Very modest fuel efficiency standards introduced in the United States in 1979 collapsed the price of oil for the next twenty years. Now, in spite of the effective removal of production from two of the three great oil producing regions of the planet (Iran and Iraq), crude oil prices are hardly looking very robust.

So before western farmers go for broke and repeat the 1970s it might be worth asking a few questions. China’s one child policy and a cultural preference for boys over girls have already limited the growth potential of China’s population. Given the severe gender imbalance, how many of those “2.5 Chinas” the Canada West Foundation symposium highlights will be middle class households driving new demand and how many will be grumpy bachelors? Given the depth and sophistication of Chinese culture, will they really adopt the more wasteful and improvident practices of the west or will they continue to follow their own culture?

The last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten said of China that for 18 of the previous 20 centuries it has been an inward looking and self-sufficient world power. So it is useful to ask with peace between China and Russia, how long will it be before northern China is developed for agricultural production? It is an area of grass-land ecology larger than western Canada and at the same latitude.

As ideas of women’s empowerment, education and local development spread, how big will the population bomb really be? India has already emerged as a major wheat producer and occasionally has significant volumes to export as well. What happens if the average Indian wheat farm follows the same productivity track western Canada has achieved for the last 30 years with public interest plant breeding?

Looking at the Canada West Foundation program of speakers what do we really have to learn from this bunch? The speakers so far are from private sector consulting and processing companies, or ideologically sympathetic governments. Will the New Zealand high commissioner tell us how to bypass the mountain ranges between us and the world market so we can export dairy products, or will he announce the end of their single-desk kiwi marketing board?

To quote their brochure, the keynote speaker is:

“The Hon. Gerry Ritz, Federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s leading agricultural policy maker, Minister Ritz has industry knowledge acquired from running his own farming operation in Saskatchewan.”

Wasn’t he part of the generation that bought into the notions of fence line to fence line production, diversification, and value adding that precipitated the 1980s farm debt crisis in the west?

Western farmers would be well advised to take this new hype about getting rich because of global population growth with a large grain of salt. The only people certain to become rich out of all of this are the new middlemen Ottawa has inserted between western Canadian farmers and their former grain customers. The giant grain handlers, processors, agro-chemical companies, and bankers who all hope a new generation of western farmers swallows this optimistic fluff and borrow money for new land and equipment from them are all looking to make money off farmers. Prey 1908

I normally have a bit of time for the Canada West Foundation. Among the various western Canadian think tanks it at least tries for impartiality and some academic rigor in its publications and these are occasionally worth reading.

However, the Canada West Foundation has now strayed deeply into academic fantasy land. Western farmers facing the theft of the seed genetics they have paid for with the passage of the UPOV 91 legislation or the ongoing grain robbery showing up in their grain cheques have a more serious reality to deal with in the here and now.


  1. Darrell Stokes

    I find it striking how many experts (or so-called experts) are actually failed farmers. Look around at the professional (??) farm managers and marketing consultants. Most of them are people who could not make a living farming, and thought that they could do better by telling you what to do.
    Amazing how much smarter they get when they don’t have a dog in the fight.

  2. Harold bell

    I find it hard to believe that ritzs has the nerve to
    Claim s he was a successful farmer when did not he go broke riasing ostriches? He hasn’t got a clue about marketing grain or shipping or getting a grip on the rail company’s