Just a day after the passage of the so-called Agricultural Growth Act allowing the privatization of the wheat genome, among many other things, Ottawa has put out a request for proposals to transfer to the private sector the future of the wheat genome. On offer are some of the most promising fusarium head blight resistant wheat genomes in its possession.
These wheat varieties are located at the recently scaled down Agriculture Canada Soils and Crops Research and Development Centre near Quebec City. As every farmer has known since time immemorial, head blight is a nightmare plant disease that can reduce a bumper crop to inedible junk status in a few weeks. There is essentially no cure or treatment – the best line of defense is plant breeding for resistance, and the Quebec experimental farm not only had some of the most promising genetics under development but was one of Agriculture Canada’s primary research centers on this problem. A little context shows how Ottawa’s request for proposals strikes at the essence of Canada’s role in feeding the world.
109 years ago the modern wheat trade was launched with the distribution to western Canadian farmers of just enough Marquis Wheat for each to seed one-tenth of an acre. This allowed Canadian farmers to grow seed stock for the following year. Marquis was developed by Canadian Government plant breeder Charles Saunders from seeds with pedigrees reaching back to ancient grains derived from spelt and cross bred with wheat varieties from India and the Ukraine. By 1920 Marquis Wheat was grown on over 90% of the 20 million acres of hard red spring wheat planted across western Canada and in much of the northern US Great Plains as well.
It is no exaggeration to say this wheat and its offspring, all created in Canada through a partnership between western farmers and the Cereals Division of the Canadian Department of Agriculture has fed the world. Whatever challenges Mother Nature presented, whether drought, weak straw strength, or insect and fungal predators, this formidable combination of government researchers working on experimental farms and western grain farmers proved invincible.
Until now. On December 2, 2014, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s department announced it was giving some of those foundation wheat lines away. Stored at the Agriculture Canada research station (formerly Sainte-Foys) near Quebec City these seed lines have been developed from some of the most ancient grain samples available in the world and are being offered for tender to the private sector.
The Conservative government in Ottawa is offering to give those wheat genetics to private non-government organizations with the formidable resources already in place to carry on wheat breeding. It does not take a genius to see that only the giant multi-national agro-chemical seed companies have the necessary resources. Or to see that Minister Ritz is doing an end-run around the newly created farmer-funded wheat and barley commissions which, given time, could have developed the resources to carry on this work. Ritz is also shutting out the long standing and very experienced farmer-funded Western Grains Research Foundation.
Controlling the wheat seed genome means controlling the future of food. Aside from being immensely profitable, giving this genome to the private sector bakes in a conflict of interest since the giant agro-chemical-seed companies are only concerned with enhancing the sales of their own products. We can expect the canola model to prevail where the companies involved genetically modified seed lines for resistance to chemicals they already had on the shelf rather than focusing on natural disease resistance and vigor as the partnership of farmers and government has done for the past 109 years for other grains.
Much like the farmer-owned and controlled Wheat Board, Ottawa is giving away another essential component of Canadian-owned agricultural production that has taken generations to build.
Editor’s note: readers may find this quote from the Ag Canada tender document especially troubling:
“The quantities of seeds offered vary according to generation and the approach used; there are lines for which 5 kernels are offered and others for which 500 grams are offered….
Because this germplasm is the property of AAFC and a duplicate will not exist in another location, the recipient is required to not empty the envelopes and always keep a small amount of each genotype; this request is valid until December 2019. This may require the registrant to reproduce the genotype for conservation purposes.” [Emphasis added]
Giant Agro-chemical seed companies win passage of Agricultural Growth Act
Over the past few weeks the farm papers have been full of quotes from Agriculture Minister Ritz claiming he has made the right to save seed absolutely clear in his Agricultural Growth Act (C-18) which was passed in Ottawa this week.
In a way he has – although not in the way many may think. With the passage of C-18, the farmers’ right to save seed has been reduced to a mere privilege. A privilege, as every teenager soon learns, can be rescinded on a whim and with the passage of C-18 the farmers’ privilege will be subject to the whims of the private agro-chemical seed companies.
Rights, on the other hand, as the Canadian and many other democratic constitutions make clear, can only be removed by due process if at all. Speaking of due process whatever wording goes into Canadian legislation it will be superseded by the UPOV 91 treaty which the Harper Government enacted through C-18 – a point made by the National Farmers Union in their response.
Minister Ritz has also stated farmers will be treated “more like customers” which is also true, but misleading. Farmers will move from owning the wheat and other cereal grain genomes to being simply customers of the agro-chemical seed companies who have been given control of those genomes and their use, development, and disposition. In other words farmers will have to pay more to use genetics which they have already developed and once owned. Both farmers and consumers will have their choices about what they grow and what they eat made for them by the agro-chemical seed companies.
Minister Ritz’s slippery statements on seed saving are as accurate as his promise before the last election that farmers would have a vote on killing their Canadian Wheat Board. Most readers will remember that once the Harper Conservatives were re-elected they promptly, and in spite of a negative Federal Court ruling, killed the CWB.
What is absolutely clear in all this is that Minister Ritz takes western farmers for fools and heaps contempt on the growing majority who disagree with him while trying to mislead everyone who eats food with slippery language.
This just in from the Reuters news agency out of Hamburg, Germany: Canadian wheat is now the cheapest in the world. How times change! With the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board farmers sold directly to overseas markets and got premium prices because of reliability of supply, honesty, and guaranteeing the highest quality grain in the world.
Thanks to Ottawa that is all gone now and Canadian sourced wheat is being sold into the Middle East for less than even wheat from nearby Russia.
This comes as no surprise to western farmers, the majority of who supported keeping the farmer-controlled single-desk.
In a related story, three weeks ago an Alberta farmer with durum wheat to sell went to his local foreign-owned elevator and was offered a mere seven dollars and change per bushel. Quite a letdown from prices that were usually more than double that with the farmer-run Wheat Board.
When he said he would wait, the elevator operator said they also had US pricing for durum which would give him twelve dollars a bushel. Not near the Wheat Board pool prices for durum but better.
Of course we know that for the first time in memory durum wheat prices are now higher in the US than in Canada and have been since Minister Ritz announced he was killing the Wheat Board.
For those who were paying attention, we have a very objective source on durum prices. Some years ago the International Trade Commission conducted an inquiry to see if the farmer-controlled Wheat Board was dumping durum wheat into the US.
The inquiry was conducted under international law like a court case. The Wheat Board sales staff were put under oath and cross examined. CWB and private trade sales in the US and from the CWB were subpoenaed and compared along with cross examination by lawyers and experts that cost almost as much per hour as a new combine.
The conclusion by the International Trade Commission was that in the five years of sales they examined the single-desk Wheat Board got premium prices for durum wheat compared to US prices in 59 out of 60 months. In the following years these findings were confirmed by three other similar tribunals.
Thanks to Minister Ritz and his tiny group of core supporters, Canadian hard red spring wheat delivered into the Middle East is now the cheapest in the world. Of course it is not really Canadian wheat any more. Ownership now changes hands to foreign corporations as soon as the Canadian farmer dumps it at the elevator – the companies get the profits by giving farmers lower prices. Thanks Minister Ritz!
One of the benefits of being involved with the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance and the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board is that I get to talk with a lot of knowledgeable people and I also get to hear very interesting reports from all over the prairies.
Here is one from a very reliable friend in southern Alberta. While waiting in a long line up of trucks at a southern Alberta elevator my friend found himself behind a vocal and well known anti-Wheat Board farmer. So my friend asked the guy why he was sitting in a line up in Alberta – why wasn’t he hauling to the US.
The fellow answered that he had done so the previous week. He said he had found a good price for durum wheat in Great Falls, Montana on the internet so he had loaded up his truck and headed south.
“So how did that work for you?” my friend asked.
“Not worth a damn” was the answer.
Apparently he had spent three hours at the border doing paper work which the Yanks did not have readily available. “Then as soon as I got into Montana, the highway patrol pulled me over – I had to remove the marked fuel from my truck and replace it with clear fuel and that took another three hours.”
When the farmer finally got to an unnamed Great Falls elevator they discounted his durum because it was two-tenths of one percent wetter than they wanted. Then they found a small rock in the load and discounted the price even more.
So my friend tells me the farmer said it was not worth it and he will be sitting in lines in Canada for the foreseeable future.
All of which demonstrates that in the world grain trade the whole idea of “buyer beware” is turned on its head and it is “seller beware” because the real power now rests with the grain companies. So this farmer learned a hard and costly lesson. The advertised price is just to get you in the door and then the excuses start. In the end he dumped his load of ultra-high quality durum wheat for less than it was worth while spending a lot of money and a very frustrating day down south.
This September the US Department of Agriculture announced it had found unapproved genetically modified (GM) wheat growing in Montana. This new discovery follows a similar discovery in Oregon in 2013 which disrupted US wheat export shipments for a time.
These US cases raise red flags for Canadian farmers because the discovery of the glyphosate (trade named “Roundup”) tolerant GM wheat in 2014 was at the Montana State University research center in Huntley almost ten years after GM wheat field trials were conducted there between 2000-2003.
Some Canadian farmers may also remember how a GM flax variety (CDC Triffid) which had only been field tested in Saskatchewan and was deregistered in 2001, showed up eight years later in a flax shipment to Germany ending our access to the European flax food market in 2009. Even today flax growers are still paying for extra testing and pedigreed seed in an attempt to fully open what was once a very profitable market for Canadian growers and processors.
As with flax, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has allowed field trials of glyphosate tolerant genetically modified wheat in several places on the prairies but has kept those locations a secret from the public. The news that genetically modified wheat can show up to contaminate grain shipments years after the trials have been suspended, as has apparently happened in the United States, raises serious questions about the quality assurance now available to purchasers of Canadian wheat since GM field trials were approved.
Unlike flax, where the losses were in the millions, GM contamination in Canadian wheat would mean losses measured in the multi-billions of dollars to farmers and the western economy.
And unlike when GM flax showed up, Canada’s impartial inward inspection of grain coming into export terminals by Canadian Grain Commission inspectors has either been eliminated entirely or privatized by Ottawa. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been essentially gutted, and with the farmer-controlled single-desk Canadian Wheat Board gone, it is a fair question to ask “who is minding the store?”
The reappearance of GM wheat matters because the customer is always right, as the grain giant Cargill found out when a shipment of its corn was rejected because of contamination by a genetically modified variety. Almost all the giant international purchasers of wheat and other grains are unanimous that they will not buy genetically modified wheat and other grains because their consumers do not want it.
If wheat farmers and those who eat bread and other wheat products don’t want a repeat of the flax debacle, they need to get after their MP now to end GM wheat testing and destroy all seed before it is too late.
More information on our Resources page under Public Plant Breeding
With all the fuss over the private grain trade using their new-found position as middlemen between farmers and international customers to take over two billion dollars in extra profits just on wheat in the last crop year, the shenanigans surrounding Ritz’s crippled Wheat Board have been largely overlooked.
This spring for the first time in 79 years the CWB failed to make their annual audited statement of operations public. The law requires the CWB to supply the Minister Responsible for the CWB with an audited statement by the end of the first quarter of each year. One can imagine that had the farmer-elected Directors behaved this way the cries of outrage from the Minister and his cheering section of astro-turf groups could have been heard all the way to Tasmania.
Yet the Minister’s office has done everything it can to prevent farmers from seeing this crucial document and is trying to off-load the responsibility by claiming it is the CWB who considers the audit confidential – never mind the fact the legislation is clear it is the Minister who has ultimate authority over the Crippled Wheat Board.
Finally under pressure from the Friends of the Wheat Board, media, and MP inquiries the Minister’s office released an audited statement but with the numbers on grain handlings, sales, and expenses removed. It is worth noting the only significant number in the partial audit released to the public is an acknowledgement that the Friends Class Action Law Suit constitutes a potential liability of $17 billion dollars.
Meanwhile Ritz’s CWB has been spending on inland grain handling facilities, even starting to pour concrete for a new terminal in Manitoba.
For farmers whose hundreds of millions of dollars in cash as well as the value of both hard assets like rail cars, ships, the downtown Winnipeg office building, and the billions of value in the CWB brand are at stake, the withholding of the audited statement seems ominous.
Canadian taxpayers should also have concerns. They are the ones providing financial guarantees to Minister Ritz’s Crippled Wheat Board. Minister Ritz has also allocated $350 million dollars of taxpayer money to his Wheat Board some of which showed up in last year’s audit for transition costs, but the rest is unaccounted for. Many suspect that part of the reason for the cash infusion was to provide political cover for the Harper government who promised a “strong and viable” voluntary CWB.
As many critics of killing the single-desk farmer-controlled Wheat Board pointed out, a strong and viable voluntary Wheat Board really meant creating a new grain handling system to compete with the already well established multinational giants. Creating that new grain handling system will cost billions of dollars with an uncertain outcome at best.
The fact Minister Ritz has chosen to keep the audit with real numbers for his Crippled Wheat Board a secret makes this writer suspect that there is much more to this story than Minister Ritz and his Prime Minister want revealed.
After the partial privatization of the legendary 113 year old Indian Head Tree Farm run by Agriculture Canada (rebranded as the Agro-forestry Development Centre some years ago) scientists, staff, and the Reeve of the Rural Municipality of Indian Head raised the alarm earlier this summer that the new private sector operator had allowed thousands of tree seedlings to be overtaken by weeds. As anyone who has planted a perennial garden or miles of shelterbelts knows, once weeds get established the work of years can be undone in a season.
This moved the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) to issue an anguished news release on the subject. A few days later they withdrew their new release’s contentious characterization of the privatized working conditions at the Indian Head Research Station tree nursery among the volunteer staff. It is notable nobody has withdrawn observations on the poor stewardship of the Tree Farm under privatization. After all why should they? The weeds choking thousands of tree seedlings speak for themselves.
No doubt the passion of the PSAC workers comes from a deep sense of the importance of the Tree Nursery and its place in western Canada. Canadian historian James Gray wrote Men Against The Desert about that heroic struggle to preserve and enhance the ecology of the dry prairies through the planting of shelter belts.
When you drive anywhere in the rural west you can see evidence of that heroism and selflessness in the shelterbelts which are still so common. Remember the farmers who spent years of hot summers watering those little sticks and keeping them weed free so they could grow to maturity had no expectation of benefitting from those plantings. They were doing so for the benefit of the next and future generations.
The staff at the tree farm was part of that bigger project – a project bigger than any individual lifetime and a project which recognized the obligation of one generation to the next.
So to see generations of work compromised by the invincible irrationality of the Federal Agriculture Minister’s pogrom against those values makes this farmer seethe, so I can only guess at the restraint shown by the PSAC people and I can sympathize with their concerns.
Urban people have almost no conception of the extent of the vandalism of basic agricultural resources, like tree farms and research stations, not to mention the privatization of the wheat genome now almost completed by the Federal Agriculture Minister.
To see the work of generations destroyed by the group of zealots now occupying Ottawa demonstrates the fragility of the Canadian state and its unwillingness to do what those heroic prairie farmers and the government workers who supplied generations of shelterbelt trees did so well – look to the future.
but farmers still captive
On the face of it the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling that shippers have the right to appeal to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) on things like fuel surcharges imposed by railways on existing contracts might seem like good news for farmers.
An Ottawa based transportation lawyer is quoted as saying the decision upholds the 2008 Canada Transportation Act which was intended “to rebalance the legislative framework in favour of shippers”
While Vancouver lawyer Forrest Hume, the legal advisor for the Canadian Freight Management Association (FMA) the industry group which supported the case launched by Peace River Coal, is quoted in an FMA news release saying “From this point forward, all shippers that have a complaint about the growing list of incidental and supplementary charges imposed by the railways will know that they have recourse to complain to the regulator whether or not there is a confidential contract in effect.”
In its decision the Supreme Court observed “…rail services were and are not provided in a perfectly competitive marketplace. In certain circumstances, the railways were seen to have superior market power to shippers.”
So it was a good ruling for coal companies, grain handling companies, and other shippers dependent on rail service. However, this does not change the fact that farmers are not shippers under the Act or the fact few farmers or their organizations have the deep pockets necessary to undertake such an appeal on the off-chance they are a shipper.
Those few farmers who are still besotted with the private grain trade and their Astroturf organizations, from which many of them enjoy off-farm income, will no doubt argue this ruling will create more of the magical competition which is supposed to make everyone better off.
In the real world of farming, most grain farmers are captive to one or two of the handful of grain handling companies and those companies’ facilities are largely captive to one or the other of the railways. In the event members of the Western Grain Elevators Association actually manage to lower their rail costs, it is a safe bet they will not be passing those savings on to farmers in the form of higher grain prices.
In 1996/97 the single-desk CWB successfully fought to establish they were a shipper of grain under the Transportation Act and used that ruling to win a level of service complaint against the railways and later civil judgements which put tens of millions of dollars back into farmers’ pockets. Thanks to Minister Ritz killing the single-desk, farmers no longer have the market power or the legal right the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board gave them to play in that elevated league.
It is also worth remembering that rail costs are now a smaller part of the overall cost farmers pay to move their grain to market. Thanks to the end of the single-desk farmer-controlled Canadian Wheat Board the private grain trade now has superior market power to farmers. This allows it to make greater profits, easily making grain handling the biggest cost to farmers.
Before the end of the CWB, the grain handlers were regulated service providers like the railways still are, and were restricted by law as to how much money they could charge the farmer-controlled CWB. Effectively farmers owned grain marketed by the CWB from their farm to the end use customer. Now it is the grain handlers that own the grain from the time the farmer dumps it at the elevator, and the handlers are free to make as much money as they want from that grain and pay the farmers however little they can get away with.
The Supreme Court decision benefiting shippers does not change the fact western farmers are now captive suppliers with no market power and are receiving less than half of the world price they got with the CWB.
“The Canadian Wheat Board is dead but CWB, its government-owned, open-market successor, is still a lightning rod for controversy.” – Manitoba Cooperator
Last week Minister Ritz was quoted in the Manitoba Cooperator claiming killing the single desk Canadian Wheat Board is having a positive impact across the prairies.
He is starting to sound like one of those 1960’s “Chatty Cathy” dolls with the string coming out between its should blades. Pull the string and it would repeat the same mindless phrases over and over.
How does taking almost 2 billion dollars of wheat sales out of farmers’ pockets in the last ten months and giving it to the private grain companies, most of whom are foreign owned, have a positive impact across the prairies?
How does having premium customers like Japan and China complaining about quality assurance and reliable supply, two areas the single desk excelled in, have any sort of positive impact?
We know from the audited statements of the now dead Canadian Wheat Board that the cost of moving wheat to port was in the range of 78 cents per bushel, and that was all in: rail, elevation, cleaning and terminal service. Over the past months the cost to farmers is now almost ten times as high – somewhere north of $6.69 per bushel. There are no Chatty Cathy talking points from Minister Ritz on where that money has gone aside from belligerence about why he will not table an audited statement for his crippled CWB.
We know the railways are constrained by law from taking any more money than they usually do, so that leaves the private grain companies with some explaining to do and blaming the railways when they were delivering grain at 98% of normal just does not cut it.
Blaming the oil companies for shipping oil by rail is always fun, but that oil largely goes south, not east or west. In 2013 there were about 140,000 rail car loads of oil shipped in Canada. That sounds like a lot until you realize that the CWB would regularly ship 240,000 cars of grain to the west coast each year, and there would be a similar number shipped by the private trade in other grains, not to mention the grain cars going east to the Lakehead, north to Churchill, and a smaller number of durum and malt barley cars going south to the US.
With the latest news that the private grain trade, which holds an oligopoly on port terminals, is not handling Minister Ritz’s CWB grain, we can say with confidence that only Chatty Cathy could repeat Minister Ritz’s mantra that “dual marketing” will work. As so many single desk supporters pointed out: without the farmer controlled single-desk Canadian Wheat Board, the only choice is the private trade.
The contest of interest now is the power play going on between the railways and the private grain trade in front of the Canadian Transportation Agency. Whoever wins that one, grain farmers can be assured they will pay more and get less – unfortunately farmers cannot take that to the bank.
Sometimes a single act or event can symbolize a whole culture. June 8th is the 66th anniversary of one of those profound acts. And this year’s announcement that the University of Saskatchewan will be closing its law library is one of those events which symbolize a different culture.
One of the displays in that law library was the rear fender from a farm tractor which symbolizes the culture that built the University of Saskatchewan. It was on June 8, 1948 Saskatchewan farmer Cecil George Harris while pinned under his overturned tractor, used his jackknife to carve his last will and testament into that fender’s paint. The fender was presented to the Court and used to establish the precedent that a handwritten will could be a valid legal instrument.
Mr. Harris was a farm person and he no doubt knew he was dying, yet his message was optimistic and his last efforts and thoughts were to protect his family’s future by writing a will. That says something about the quality of prairie farm culture and looking to the future – perhaps it is those long prairie vistas.
Since the law library where it was housed is now a victim of the same austerity mania that Ottawa uses as a cover to destroy what it either does not like or will not understand, it would not be a surprise to see this valuable artifact put in a back room or at worst, given the disrespect for academic freedom so recently on display at the University of Saskatchewan sold or sent to the recycling bin. Pretending a university can have a law faculty without a dedicated law library says much about the current culture which has come down from an Ottawa regime in full retreat from evidence-based policy.
Over the past years this organization has pointed out the systematic destruction of research capacity in grains carried out by Ottawa. As grain producers our members understand all too well what happens when research capacity is privatized. We have a vivid example this spring where seed canola which was privatized in the 1980s now costs in the order of $600 a bushel compared to seed wheat which is still funded by farmers in the public interest and costs a fraction of that astronomical number.
With the closure of the Winnipeg Cereal Research center, our capacity to continue producing the highest quality of cereal grains is being thrown to the winds by Ottawa and the giant agro-chemical companies are picking up the elite scientists who gained their expertise in farmer- and publically-funded laboratories and research farms. Ottawa wants all plant breeding to follow the canola model which aims to promote herbicide sales while coasting on the yield gains already in hand created by farmers funding science in the public interest.
Scientists, commentators, and academics from around the world have expressed dismay at the systematic destruction of scientific and academic libraries across Canada under the trusteeship of the Federal Government. One of the first acts of this pogrom against evidence was the destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board library in 2013. With last month’s sabotage of Health Canada libraries, even the general public should now realize what a serious problem this represents.
While it is all too easy to destroy libraries, research facilities, and marketing agencies, Ottawa may find that it is not so easy to destroy the cooperative values symbolized in a steel tractor fender now hidden away at the University of Saskatchewan.