Food Genetics – More Talking Points

by on Dec 5, 2018 in Blog | Comments Off on Food Genetics – More Talking Points

(December 5, 2018)  In the previous article I went through some of the talking points advanced by supporters of privatization under the “Seed Value Creation/Seed Synergy” consultations.  I also posted a useful background article by a friend and colleague.

In order to frighten farmers much has been made of the fact the Harper government went on a destructive rampage at Agriculture and AgriFood Canada.  The claim is there is simply not enough money to sustain our present system after the Harper government led vandalism.  Their solution is royalties paid to the private sector backed up by draconian regulatory penalties.

So let us be clear: what the corporations involved in “Seed Value Creation/Seed Synergy” want is for Ottawa let them put their hands into prairie farmers’ pockets.  As they often say, they are very passionate about what they see as the benefits of this idea.

There are already enough hands in our pockets.  Through provincially mandated check-off organizations, like the Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions or the Saskatchewan Wheat and Barley Commissions, prairie farmers already pay more than enough money to fund our partnership with Agriculture Canada to do seed research and development.  More than enough grain farmers also chip in by purchasing certified pedigreed seed as well.  As farms scale up in size more and more will do so.

When it comes to funding the sky is not falling

When it comes to funding the sky is not falling.  In fact, with all the new and readily available seed technologies the real cost of plant breeding research and development will go down, not up over time.  One of the boasts made by one of the private sector cheerleaders is they can use new technology to cut varietal development time down by more than half.  If true, the same techniques can also be integrated into our public plant breeding system.

Which leads to the inevitable conclusion that in order to make sure those cost saving do not disappear into corporate profits and are returned to prairie farmers, Ottawa needs to step up and protect the long term control of Canada’s food supply in the interests of farmers and the public.  Not to mention avoiding the obvious conflicts of interest baked into a system involving integrated agro-chemical-seed companies.

The proponents of this so-called Seed Value Creation project also try to divert attention from the big three agro-chemical-seed companies.

One of the supporters of the Seed Value Creation process is Canterra Seeds a company that says it is a partner in something called Limagrain Cereals Research Canada (LCRC).  The other part of LCRC is Limagrain a French-based seed company.  Limagrain itself claims to be the fourth largest seed company in the world as well as a farmer-owned cooperative based in France.  Like so many in the private sector, LCRC’s web site claims they are “passionate about using its plant breeding expertise to support the Canadian grains industry.”

There seems to be an awful lot of passion about taking control of the cereals genome away from prairie farmers and the Canadian public – could that be an indication there is a great deal of money to be made charging Canadian farmers, gardeners, and flower enthusiasts royalties to use seed genetics the Canadian public, including grain farmers have already paid for?

Limagrain claims to be the fourth largest seed producer in the world.  Let’s put that into context.  Limagrain reports overall sales of US $2.8 billion.  This is about one tenth as large as Bayer/Monsanto which is the largest of the big three agro-chemical-seed companies with an estimated US$24.5 billion in sales.  The smallest of the recently merged big three is Syngenta/ChemChina with estimated combined sales almost seven times greater than Limagrain.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a French farmer-owned cooperative operating a seed business and there is nothing stopping them from doing so.  But there is something very wrong with Ottawa allowing any organization to profit by charging Canadians for seed developed from a genome already paid for by Canadians.  It is even more offensive when the seed involved is the wheat genome that Canada’s Dominion Cerealist created over a century ago.  That Canadian-made wheat genome is still the genetic basis for all temperate zone bread wheat cultivars.

Let’s remember that all the cereals and domestic plants we use were created or adapted to thrive in the Canadian climate through our public plant breeding system.  So in terms of genetics, nobody has anything better than what we have now.

Is Limagrain only a seed company?  Limagrain’s flagship wheat production system marketed elsewhere under the name CoAXium™ involves a wheat cultivar developed to be tolerant of one type of herbicide.  Their promotional material even echo’s the promise from Monsanto that its herbicide tolerant (HT) canola would simplify farmers’ role to “seed, spray, harvest.”  It should be noted that unlike Monsanto’s HT canola which was modified by inserting genetic material from another species, Limagrain’s HT wheat appears to use a non-transgenic (non-GMO) methodology.

On its web site Limagrain notes it is partnered with the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation Inc. and an herbicide manufacturer in the development and roll out of this HT wheat.  How is this different from what we see now in canola development or in the giant integrated agro-chemical-seed companies?

In our public interest Canadian system this variety would have to meet our much higher milling wheat standards and it would also have to meet with customer acceptance in the milling, baking, and noodle industries around the world.  Of course if those who want to harmonize our grain grading and registration standards to the much lower US levels get their way, Canada will be removed as the only producer of high quality cereals and the only potential supplier of non-herbicide tolerant wheat. 

Some Seed Value Creation supporters also trot out the notion our plant breeding system is responsible for a decline in wheat acres over the years.  The best response to this nonsense came from an astute Manitoba farmer in Winnipeg who observed that “there are more canola acres because there is more demand for canola.”  

As another farmer observed seed development is a conversation that should take place between farmers, the people of Canada, and their elected Government.  No one else.”  We do not need private companies pushing consultations to convince farmers and Canadians that they know better than those of us actually living and working here how to continue developing our food system.

Let’s also be clear: the Canadian seed genome includes more than just grains.  Everything from flax, hemp, and vegetables, to fruits, ornamental plants like roses, and other plants that thrive in our northern climate are all on the table.  Now is the time to bring this dialogue back to where it belongs – between farmers, Canadians, and our elected Government.  It is time to get the conflicts of interest out of our Canadian food system.

An obvious part of this needs to be a reassessment of the gutting of the farmer-controlled Western Grains Research Foundation and the transferring  of its responsibilities to the western Canadian wheat/barley commissions/associations by 2020.  But that is a problem for another day.

There is nothing to stop farmers and those who like to eat from showing up at the last meeting in Edmonton – December 6, 2018 10:00 am to 4:00 pm at the Renaissance Edmonton Airport Hotel, 4236 – 36th St.  People need to let the Federal bureaucrats know what they think of these ideas.

Food Genetics – Seed companies’ talking points

by on Nov 30, 2018 in Blog | 3 comments


(November 30, 2018)  By now most grain farmers are aware that just three giant agro-chemical-seed companies dominate the global agrochemical and seed market.  These giants are certainly interested in taking control of the Canadian cereals genome away from farmers and the public interest.  Their friends and sympathisers are using a vehicle called “Seed Synergy” under the umbrella of “Seed Value Creation” to make this happen.  They make various claims about how charging farmers royalties on the seed they grow will be a great thing.

I would just like to highlight some of the talking points Seed Synergy and their friends use to push this privatization agenda of imposing royalties and draconian regulations on grain farmers under various labels (Technology Use Agreements (TUAs), Seed Variety Use Agreements, End Point Royalties, Trailing Contracts and the like).

They seem to have several talking points.

To keep farmers docile, they say royalties/TUAs will only apply to new varieties where farmers’ right to save seed has been replaced with a mere privilege – BUT, they say, we will still have the right to save and grow obsolete varieties.  Both statements may be true but are irrelevant.  Is anybody still growing Betz barley?  Of course not, smut and other fungi evolved to eat it.

As older varieties become vulnerable to evolving pests, evolution makes them obsolete, making the right to save and grow our own older varieties weak and fragile.  To speed up farmer adoption of new royalty-friendly varieties, expect to jump through hoops to prove you’re really planting an older variety.  The Seed Synergy database they want to set up to enforce the new royalty scheme will quickly identify where new varieties are not being grown and whose land is not returning royalties, making it easy for the PBR police to find you.  So, in the near future with Seed Synergy/TUAs there will be no possibility of choice for grain farmers.  With TUAs, evolution will gradually kill any choices we have to grow and save seed of any sort without paying some sort of annual royalty to the integrated agro-chemical-seed companies.

The contention farmers will always have the choice of saving and planting their own seed-grain is less than accurate.

I should also note that it takes around 12 years to develop a new variety.  This means that in the short term this is just an excuse for the agro-chemical-seed companies to free load on the publically developed varieties already in the pipeline.  Remember farmers and the Canadian public paid for the development of those varieties.

The second claim is that Royalties/TUAs will allow us to be “competitive on a world basis.”  More nonsense.  Our wheat and barley genetics are already the gold standard for quality and agronomic fitness to our climate.  Giving control of choosing which varietal lines are “finished” and commercialized to companies operating on a multinational basis means our needs in prairie Canada will be watered down to a common global level.  This is simply the logic of business lowering its overhead costs by using fewer specialized product lines to enhance their profits.  Prairie Canada lives or dies on its ability to provide quality-assured grain that nobody else grows.  Our climate helps, but publically developed genetics are the other magic ingredient.

Seed Synergy supporters also make much of the idea the government is cutting back on its support of public plant breeding.  It is true the Harper clan did engage in an orgy of destruction just before they lost the last election.  This can be easily fixed by restoring the public obligation to support impartially developed cereal grains which the Harper Conservatives cut back on.

Why pedigreed seed growers would think their own work is so unimportant that it does not demand continued government support for public plant breeding is a mystery, as is their willingness to surrender their independence and skills to work as agents of the big agro-chemical-seed companies.

Lastly, the issue of conflict of interest is simply not addressed.  In an interview Ward Oatway (president of the Ab. Seed Growers) even trotted out midge resistant wheat as an example of how good this whole process could be.  In fact, midge resistant wheat is a recent example of public plant breeding without the built-in conflicts of interest of Seed Synergy TUAs.

Another good example is “Rescue” the sawfly resistant wheat registered in 1946 and developed by our public system.  At that time US farmers were reliant on the private seed companies and sprayed mega tonnes of DDT on their wheat to control sawflies while our wheat was sawfly resistant, so we did not need DDT.

How would companies like Bayer/Monsanto, which have major investments in agro-chemical factories deal with a similar insect resistant varietal line in a world of plant breeding effectively controlled by private companies?  Actually, private companies have controlled canola breeding since the early 1980s.  They have left a varietal line known as “hairy canola” that does not need insecticides sitting on the shelf for years.  When compared with wheat, privately managed canola breeding has proven to be more expensive with poorer yield gains, but that is another problem.  We Albertans seem to be blind to conflicts of interest.

In my over 40 years of grain farming I have purchased and planted seed every year from one of the local farms who raise pedigreed seed – my choice.  Many of my neighbours save and replant their seed and only occasionally buy pedigreed seed – their choice.  Our present system is already the best in the world for both farmers and the public.  Under Seed Synergy/TUAs, we will all be compelled to purchase seed from one of the big agro-chemical-seed companies every year and pay royalties in one form or another to their shareholders – and that is no choice at all.

Next time look for a more detailed article on this subject.


Food Genetics – farmers created it all

by on Nov 28, 2018 in Blog | Comments Off on Food Genetics – farmers created it all

(November 28, 2018)  Editor’s Note:  The Federal Government and representatives of the three giant agro-chemical-seed companies are working to take control of seed genetics away from prairie farmers and the Canadian public.  The following compilation of two articles by my late friend and colleague Paul Beingessner about how grain and other food genetics are created by farmers is more pertinent than ever.  This article is reproduced from our Public Plant Breeding page.

Shared knowledge and co-operation make progress possible

– Paul Beingessner

Cross breeding of plants to produce new varieties is a relatively recent science, little more than 100 years old. Improving plant varieties by selection, on the other hand, has been going on for about 10,000 years. All modern plant breeding, is built on that first 10,000 years during which farmers around the world created an astounding legacy.

– wild wheat X wild goat grass = Emmer
– Emmer X wild goat grass = Bread wheat

And what did farmers do in those 300 generations? Well, they developed modern crops. By careful selection, they turned tiny seeds of grasses and small wild fruits into grains and vegetables and fruits, many of which we still grow and eat today. They developed hundreds of breeds of cattle, sheep, goats and other animals suited to the wide range of climates around the globe. And they did all this before the discovery of the science of genetics, which is just a bit over 100 years old.

One hundred years ago, no one owned plant varieties. Plant breeders around the world co-operated by sharing germplasm and passing on new discoveries. The creation of Marquis wheat, forerunner of nearly all bread wheats in western Canada, illustrates how plant breeders built on the legacy left by generations of farmers.

Marquis is a cross between Red Fife and Hard Red Calcutta. Red Fife was brought from Scotland, by a farmer who got the seeds from a Polish ship that carried wheat from the Ukraine. It was given to another Scottish farmer in Ontario, David Fife.

Hard Red Calcutta came from India, but it was a type of wheat rather than a single variety. Crossed with Red Fife and carefully selected for several generations, it yielded Marquis wheat. By 1918, Marquis was grown on more than 20 million acres, from northern Saskatchewan to southern Nebraska. James Boyle of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University said this about Marquis wheat: “The greatest single advance in wheat ever made was the introduction of that class of hard spring wheat known as Marquis wheat. The idea came free of charge from the Dominion of Canada’s Cerealist, Sir Charles E. Sanders (sic).”

The development of Marquis wheat is a story of co-operation. Co-operation, whether wittingly or not, between farmers of that day in Poland, the Ukraine, Scotland, India, Canada and the United States, and farmers from thousands of years before, whose careful work in selecting and preserving wheat seeds made all the other co-operation possible. This co-operation occurred because people recognized the importance of progress and development, and they knew it would only happen if people shared their knowledge.

For 300 generations, ten thousand years, farmers kept this knowledge and passed it on. And now, in our generation, the chain is being broken. Farmers are leaving the land in droves. Why? Because we gave up our control over that knowledge. As modern science evolved, we gave it to the universities. But they were publicly owned, and as they improved on that knowledge, they gave it back to us, freely.

Then, about 20 years ago, there was a dramatic shift. Governments decided that knowledge should no longer be free. They brought in plant breeders’ rights and patents on living things. Now, by adding one tiny jot to the information that came from 300 generations of farmers, private companies and even the universities themselves could own the knowledge built up over 10,000 years. And once they had it, they began to sell it back to us, to use, not to own. Now farmers are forbidden from saving their own seeds and giving them to their neighbours, as they did for millennia.

But we did all this for a reason, right? We did it because science and the privatization of knowledge were going to give us better crops, make us better off, and allow us to feed the expanding global population.

So we look for solutions. Ethanol, bio-diesel, WTO, hog barns, higher yielding crops, genetically modified plants and animals. Strangely, 400 million people still die of hunger each year, while a billion have inadequate diets. Farmers all over the globe are in trouble, fleeing to overcrowded cities and abandoning the practices of 300 generations.

The patenting of plants, far from encouraging innovation, as is the purpose of patents, is now used to stifle innovation. It allows companies to tie up germplasm for their exclusive use. While plant breeders’ rights do not now allow a breeder to restrict further work using his creation, patents do. Farmers must let their voices be heard.
© Paul Beingessner   2004 and 2006

 Who will control the legacy of 300 generations of crop genetics?

The Canadian tradition has been to build on this legacy in the public interest.  Farmers and the Canadian public have provided the funding for scientists working at public universities and Federal Government Agricultural Research stations to continue developing new varieties of wheat and other grains.

Next time look for a background on the latest attempt by the agricultural chemical industry to hijack control of the genetics of our daily bread and other foods.

Postal worker dedication critical to rural service

by on Nov 23, 2018 in Blog | Comments Off on Postal worker dedication critical to rural service

(November 23, 2018)  When there is a labour disruption at the Post Office it brings home the fact this is an important service.  Business and some of the media usually blame the Canadian Union of Postal Workers for being irresponsible with the implication postal workers’ concerns are frivolous.  CUPW started a rotating strike trying to get Canada Post’s management to address their health and safety concerns.

We have not seen much disruption of the postal service here in my neck of the woods.  I sent my grain samples away to the Canadian Grain Commission’s Harvest Sample Program after the strike started.  So it was a happy surprise yesterday morning to open my email and receive my sample results from the federal employees at the Canadian Grain Commission, who also provide an important service to Canadian grain farmers.  All of the grain samples from my harvest made it through the postal system just fine in spite of all the wailing about postal service disruptions.  Incidentally because of the late fall and wet harvest, the CGC has extended the deadline for this very useful program to November 30 and have added some useful extras to the results.  Click here to get into the Harvest Sample Program.

As a rural Albertan, I have a soft spot for postal workers and the Post Office in general, even when there are more bills than good news in the mail.  We order our chicken and Christmas Turkey direct from a hatchery so the chicks come in a vented cardboard box via Canada Post, usually in the middle of a cold March day.  Now the catch is our rural Alberta Post Office is served by a mail truck that arrives at about 3 AM from the sorting plant.  Normally the mail is deposited into a large lock box next to the building.

Baby chicks and turkeys by Post

A local store owner operates our rural Postal outlet.  Somebody lets her know those delicate chicks are on their way.  So at 3 AM our local Post Mistress walks down to her store to retrieve the chicks and move them into the warm building.  She tells me the driver of the Postal Van always wraps the box in their own winter coat to keep the chicks warm and waits until she shows up.  You can’t buy service or dedication like that.  

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers has stated their members now have a higher rate of injury than any other employees in the federal sector.  I’m told injuries started to increase after the much reviled community mail boxes were introduced in 2015 along with much longer routes.  At that time the principle of equal pay for work of equal value was discarded for newly hired people and rural carriers creating a two-tier pay system.  After a day of shoveling grain I can empathize with their concerns about workplace injuries in the face of a massive increase in parcel post deliveries.

And I also know that we all have a collective obligation to treat the people who provide services with respect and consideration whether they are a minimum wage food server or a postal worker.  Since the numbers show postal worker injury rates are through the roof it is no surprise one of the Union’s concerns is work place safety.  Regrettably the Federal Government has chosen to dismiss their concerns by tabling back to work legislation just as the Harper Government did.

Compared to the several books that came in yesterday’s mail or even the bunch of grain samples we sent off to the Canadian Grain Commission, our annual box of chicks does not weight much.  However, with the rise in e-commerce, I cannot imagine what it must be like for Postal Workers facing a mountain of packages ordered on-line.  But, it is not the workers’ job to anticipate the demands on the service.  That responsibility lies with management and it does not look like they are coping well.  Forcing the workers back to work is just kicking the problems down the line.  Injuring and disabling workers is no way to make sure we continue having the excellent service I’m used to from my rural post office.

Churchill rail restored

by on Nov 1, 2018 in Blog | Comments Off on Churchill rail restored

But the port only has half of its life back

(November 1, 2018)  Today’s announcement by the Prime Minister that the 1,000 km. Churchill rail line is restored and will soon be in operation is very good news for the people of the Town of Churchill and the many communities along that line who depended on it for supplies and transportation.

It is also good news for Canadian northern sovereignty in an age of global warming where the Arctic Ocean will become open for shipping most of the year.

The total cost for restoring the line is being reported as $117 million, just over half of what former Harper Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz suggested it might cost. (see note below)

In spite of the rail line’s restoration, the Port of Churchill is still only getting half of its life back.  As was explained earlier, Churchill’s grain terminal was only viable when the farmer owned and directed Canadian Wheat Board was ruthless in choosing shipping terminals that returned the greatest value to prairie grain farmers – for farmers in eastern Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba that was often Churchill.

Once the Harper and Ritz administration destroyed the Wheat Board, the private trade choose to bypass Churchill in favour of using their existing facilities.  Without the CWB the private grain trade now enjoys complete impunity and with it the ability to download the extra costs of using their system to the farmers and others who once benefitted from the port of Churchill.

So congratulations are in order to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Transport for restoring a vital rail link and supporting an important strategic northern port.  Now to make the port financially viable, they need to take the next step and give prairie farmers the collective bargaining power they had with the Canadian Wheat Board.  That would remove the built in conflicts of interest that now cost prairie farmers so much.  Returning collective bargaining will give prairie farmers the chance to restore their reputation for quality, honesty, and reliability on the world stage squandered by the private grain trade.

note:  Canadian Press reports the Federal Government “provided $74 million to help fix the railroad and buy it, along with the town’s port, from Denver-based Omnitrax.”

Same old from Alberta Wheat Commission

by on Jun 28, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

Alberta Wheat Commission cheers on race to low prices – may not be exactly as illustrated

(June 28, 2018)  Few things are more predicable than the creatures of the Government of Alberta making grand plans to take grain trade regulation away from the public interest and give it to the corporate sector.

This all stems from the long-standing Alberta government policy of doing everything it can to provide cheap grain for cattle feeding and other grain processors in Alberta.  In a meeting I had with Walter Paszkowski, then Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Agriculture Minister, he embarrassed his handlers and startled my two companions by telling us the Wheat Board was an impediment to this policy.  Some years later in a meeting with Oneil Carlier, Alberta’s current Agriculture Minister, Carlier refused to engage in a discussion about how Alberta’s Agricultural check-off groups allocated their funding to this end.  Later Carlier effectively reversed a policy allowing Alberta producers to ask for their money back from the check-off commissions – demonstrating the old adage that “no matter who you voted for, the government got in.”

One of the Alberta government’s most reliable creatures is the Alberta Wheat Commission.  Like the other Alberta agricultural check-off commissions, it holds the counterfeit of democratic elections to select its Board of Directors.  Not surprisingly those elections regularly produce a group of people who talk about free enterprise in agriculture while ignoring the reality of the global market place and the fact, to pick just one of many examples, that only two companies, Cargill and JBS, control about 90% of beef packing in Canada.  Sometimes they even do it with a straight face!

The AWC’s June newsletter is a vintage example of thinking “inside the box.”  Their message is that the Canadian Grain Commission is “a legislative relic.”  In the AWC’s bubble the legislative mandate of the Grain Commission to “work in the interests of farmers” apparently has no importance to either farmers or customers.  Nor does the fact farmers have off-set the great cost of getting their grain to tide water (in some of the world’s worst weather through six mountain rangers) by selling quality-assured grain to quality conscious premium markets like Japan.

Instead, in the same issue AWC suggests Columbia, a small and only semi-stable Latin American country is eager to buy lower quality wheat – the implication being prairie farmers can forget about quality assurance standards and sell to the Columbias of this world.  It has apparently never crossed the serene minds at AWC that farmers make less if they grow low quality wheat for poor markets.

Their June newsletter also makes the laughable suggestion that inspections by private contractors can replace the objective quality assurance provided by the Canadian Grain Commissions’ grain inspections.  The CGC has a sterling international reputation for honesty and objectivity.  That’s why our customers trust their inspections.

Apparently to the AWC what our customers want, and the credibility of our grading and export system does not matter.  Perhaps AWC has already forgotten Japan imposed a ban on prairie wheat last week because of genetically modified wheat plants found in Southern Alberta.

The AWC does not seem to recall that since the Harper administration killed the Canadian Wheat Board in 2011, international customers have consistently made complaints that our quality standards are slipping.  So aside from the deep thinkers at the Alberta Wheat Commission, who exactly is asking us to lower our inspection standards and harmonize our grading system with the US?  Certainly not our customers.

Reading the AWC’s publications makes it clear they are reliability promoting an economically illiterate Alberta Government policy from the 1970s to “walk all the grain off the prairies.”  That isn’t in the best interests of prairie farmers no matter what the AWC claims.  Our customers want high quality standards and we should listen to them.

Harper legacy kills another premium wheat market

by on Jun 15, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

(June 15, 2018)  Japan has announced the (hopefully temporary) suspension of wheat purchases.  The suspension followed quickly after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s announcement yesterday of the discovery of genetically modified glyphosate-resistant wheat in southern Alberta.

Japan was always one of our Canadian Wheat Board’s customers willing to pay premium prices for quality-assured prairie wheat and barley – so much so the CWB maintained a full time office in Tokyo.

One of the reasons the Canadian Wheat Board insisted on caution about introducing Monsanto’s genetically modified wheat in the 2000s was the almost universal response from wheat buyers across the world that they would not purchase the stuff.  As any smart marketer knows, “the customer is always right” and “quality always sells.” The customers didn’t want GM Wheat so Canadian farmers and their Wheat Board smartly listened to what their customers wanted.

Speaking of the opposite of smart marketing, last week the Alberta and other prairie Wheat Commissions received a longish screed calling for the end of our prairie wheat grading system and its harmonization with the much lower US standards.  The authors of this screed included many of the usual anti-Wheat Board activists that had gained the ear of the affable but destructive former Premier of Alberta Ralph Klein and former Harper Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

Other buyers of prairie grain are already unhappy with the continual failings of the big US grain companies to provide quality-assured Canadian prairie grain.  If they follow Japan’s example, wheat farmers facing falling prices with bulging bins will be looking for answers.  They need look no further than the Harper Conservative Members of Parliament who did the bidding of the tiny minority of malcontents that wanted our Wheat Board killed.  A lot of the anti-CWB activists pushing to kill our grading and quality assurance systems are the same people who wanted GM wheat introduced into western Canada.  You can bet they have no plans to take responsibility for this mess.

click to enlarge

With the Canadian Wheat Board prairie grain producers collectively sold their grain to over 70 countries around the world with much of that going to premium markets like Japan.  Now prairie grain farmers sell individually to just a tiny handful of private companies in a market effectively controlled by just three giant corporations.

Whatever happens with grain sales as a result of this GM mess, you can bet the big grain companies will pass any and all extra costs back to farmers as lower prices.  Along with declining prices and totally bungled delivery logistics, the Harper Administration’s legacy of killing the CWB just keeps on taking from prairie farmers and giving to the big grain companies.


Author’s note:  to be scrupulously fair, it should be noted that a few of the anti-CWB activists I met at that time actually supported the CWB’s caution about the introduction of GM wheat, although it did not change their views about ending the single-desk and orderly marketing.

Other articles among many on this subject:

Note:  this story has been revised.

Don’t blame the trains

by on May 8, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

Farmers waiting to deliver grain

(May 8, 2018)  Prairie grain farmers live and die by the prices and delivery opportunities for their grain.  On both counts farmers have a strong sense of being short changed.  When the price looks good and the basis is low, the elevator is often plugged.  When the basis is high making the offered price lower, the elevator has space for deliveries.

This smells like the bad old days when farmers brought grain to the elevator only to have the agent tell them there was no space for their number one wheat but there was still room for lower priced wheat if they wanted to take less.  Now farmers are again finding elevators plugged when the price is high. The important question becomes: are farmers being short changed by the railways or by the grain companies?

This past winter the grain companies have been telling farmers and pretty much anybody that would listen that the railways are not delivering rail cars.  They claim poor rail service is why elevators are plugged so farmers cannot deliver their grain and ships are waiting at port.  High basis costs and lower prices are sometimes blamed on the railways as well.  Is rail service for grain shipments really that bad? If it is then our grain exports should show it.

There are objective numbers about grain shipments and exports from Canada.  According to the Canadian Grain Commission, as of crop week 39, which ended April 29, 2018, overall grain exports are only down a tiny 2.1% compared to the same week last year.  Remember that last crop year, the Canadian Transportation Agency found the railways delivered 7% more grain than the previous year – almost a new record.  In 11 of the 39 crop weeks overall exports are seldom down more than 1% and most of the missing export volume is accounted for by increased domestic use and the fall of canola and pulse exports.

However, the real eye-openers are the numbers for wheat.  Up to April 29/18 total wheat exports are up a blistering 14.75% compared to last year.  The CGC also reports that in every week of the 2017-18 crop year Canada exported substantially more wheat than in the same period for the previous crop year.  Claims by elevator agents they have no room ring hollow when their grain companies are moving more wheat than ever to export position.

Even barley exports are up 66.8%.  Smaller crops like soy beans are down 10%, while lentils, peas, and other pulses are down more than 50%, mostly because of Indian tariffs.  Canola is down 5.4% and durum is down 10% after the private trade bungled quality assurance.  It is these last two crops which account for the biggest part of that overall 2.1% drop in export grain shipments. It is the grain companies who are responsible for customers turning away from prairie canola, durum wheat, and pulse crops.

It is notable the private trade has bungled quality assurance on the grains with poor export numbers.

Without a single-desk marketer to manage logistics and deal with quality assurance there is no way prairie farmers will receive full value for their grain and customers will get what they want – when they want it.  So there is little evidence for blaming the trains, at least this time.

In spite of what you may read in some of the business press, the year-to-date export numbers from the Canadian Grain Commission show the railways are doing their job.  So farmers and their former customers are the ones being short changed in many ways by the grain companies.

Oil by Rail is Trivial
Oil by rail is another excuse used by grain company apologists to divert attention from their poor management. The National Energy Board publishes monthly figures for oil shipments crossing the Canadian border by rail.  The highest shipment month since 2012 was December of 2014 at 27,913 cubic meters (m³) of oil per day.  As of February 2018 oil by rail is down to 21,306 m³ per day.  It sounds like a lot of oil, but it is only 163 oil tank cars a day.  This is a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly 1,300 grain cars a day that moved last year’s grain crops to port.

Most oil still goes south into the United States to be refined.  Grain goes west to the Pacific.  Adding oil transport to rail does not use the same tracks or mountain passes as grain – at least not for now.  Scaling up rail operations to meet extra demand for shipping oil south is a matter of adding extra locomotives and crews. 


Ag dwarfs oil

by on Apr 19, 2018 in Blog | 1 comment

(April 19, 2018)  It was Friday the 13th and on CBC Calgary’s Eye-Opener its business commentator reported that Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company had a net income of US $33.8 billion in the first six months of the year on a cash flow of US $52 billion.  It sounded like he was about to go into rapture right on the air.  But hey, the show was coming from Calgary, Alberta where they have long ago forgotten their heritage as the birth place of the Alberta Wheat Pool much less the critical role played by Albertans in the formation of the Canadian Wheat Board.

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This demonstrates how most people are unaware of the invisible giants of agriculture that take so much money from prairie grain farmers and the Canadian economy.  Just three years ago the public face of Cargill made US $120.4 billion and ADM made US $67 billion.  Combined this is three times what Saudi Aramco took.  Adding in the world’s third largest grain trader, COFCO (China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation) at US $65 billion gives these grain traders combined revenue of over US $250 billion making Aramco look positively tiny by comparison.

These top three grain traders now control over 70% of the world’s grain.  The formerly mighty Louis Dreyfus and Bunge are in fourth and fifth place.  With the exception of a handful of other tiny grain companies these big five trade essentially all the grain in the world. The stakes in agriculture are very high and as the CBC commentator demonstrated, most people are oblivious.

For those who regard giant companies dominating a market sector with some suspicion, it just keeps getting worse for both prairie farmers and people who like to eat.  With announcement of the US Department of Justice’s approval of the US $66 billion merger of Monsanto and Bayer, the giants on the input side of agriculture are getting a lot larger too.  This merger on the agrochemical-seed side was preceded last year by the mergers of Dow with DuPont and Syngenta with ChemChina.  Outside of Canada, these three companies now control almost 100% of the world’s agricultural seed development and over 70% of the world’s agrochemical market.

Years ago prairie farmers met those giants by building cooperative grain handling systems, marketing collectively through the Canadian Wheat Board, and financing public interest plant breeding.  Essentially western Canada was operated as a gigantic virtual grain farm when it came to quality assurance and grain sales.

Working together provided huge price premiums to prairie farmers.  With the killing of the Wheat Board those premiums are now being vacuumed up by the giant grain companies.  For the first time in living memory number one Canadian hard red spring wheat is now usually trading at a discount to inferior US dark northern spring wheat.

While the giant agrochemical and seed companies are consolidating to take more from prairie grain farmers on the input side of things, in Ottawa the Liberals and their feckless Agriculture Minister are carrying on with the Harper government’s plan to privatize the Canadian developed genomes for wheat, barley, oats, and other essential grains while the Alberta NDP’s agriculture Minister keeps his head down.

In an Orwellian bit of misdirection this process of taking control of cereals genetics away from prairie farmers and giving it to the giant agrochemical seed companies of this world is being titled Value Creation Working Group Grains Roundtable.  What it really means is taking the value of the seed genome developed by farmers and the Canadian public and giving its control and profits over to giant foreign agrochemical seed companies.

So while Alberta, BC, and Ottawa are in a lather about what amounts to chump change being lost because of what they claim is inadequate oil pipeline capacity to the coast, the really big money continues to be stolen from prairie grain farmers by the invisible giants of agriculture and siphoned to their shareholders.

International Women’s Day 2018

by on Mar 8, 2018 in Blog | Comments Off on International Women’s Day 2018

(March 8, 2018)  On this international women’s day I learned of the longest running suffrage magazine in Canada.  Freyja was published in Manitoba in Icelandic beginning in 1898 and ending in 1910.  At the time it was considered the only such magazine being published in Canada.  Its editor was Margret Benedictsson.

This reminded your writer of a presentation called “Women of the Aspenland” from the mid 1990s in Alberta.  Women of the Aspenland highlighted the leadership roles played by women working together on the various farm and community groups to enhance the collective market power of everyone from grain farmers to hog growers and their contributions to Canadian society.

Hazel Braithwaite, one of our neighbours, was recognized for her long involvement with the United Farm Women of Alberta:  “Her concerns, she said, were anything that affected the farm family.”  She was later commemorated with a life-sized bronze statue by the City of Red Deer.

As readers page through the various central Alberta communities they may be surprised to see the range and multicultural variety of women and their involvement in building Central Alberta.  It would be possible to build a similar list for most of prairie Canada and those lists would be heavily weighted towards farm women.  A surprising thought given the difficulties of transportation in the early days.

In contrast with the older settlements of eastern Canada, prairie farm women occupied strong leadership roles with equal voice and votes in farm politics.  Rural prairie settler culture was not perfect, as the life of the pioneer Manitoba journalist Margret Benedictsson showed,  but through hard work and an open prairie culture,  farm women were considered “persons” in every sense of the word long before the famous five prairie women established this fact in law.