Burning Bridges to the Future

by on Aug 25, 2015 in Blog | 1 comment

Ottawa book-burners hit Lethbridge Research Stationburning-bridge

(August 25/15) The now systematic burning of scientific libraries by Ottawa over the past three years can no longer be seen as just near-sighted policy. It has to be recognized for what it is: the active sabotage of our publically financed research and development capacity by people who do not value or understand knowledge in the public interest.

Friday’s announcement that the library at the Lethbridge Agricultural Research Station had been trashed was especially tragic and the excuse proffered by a Conservative stooge that requests for library materials had declined is especially obnoxious given the wholesale firing of scientific personal over the past ten years by Ottawa. The dumpsters outside the library filled with scientific monographs, books, and other publications also give the lie to the contention that the materials have been copied onto computers for future use.

Lethbridge dumpster

Lethbridge dumpster

Science is built in increments based on previous studies. Those studies, described as “gray matter” by research librarians because the studies are usually monographs bound in gray covers, no matter how old, often contain nuggets of information critical to current problems.

Scientific researchers, the people who actually “get dirty with their data,” have to spend years learning about their subject by going into those libraries and actually reading the papers left for future generations by their predecessors. Those dusty papers are not usually available either as digital versions or in textbooks but they almost always contain critical background which allows people today to understand the context of their work.

Consider some short examples: In 1927 a researcher published a paper observing that wild bees were especially prevalent in alfalfa crops that produced heavy seed yields. Contemporary researchers concerned with declining bee populations may have been interested in this research and the subsequent papers that grew from it. Unfortunately these gray matter papers, referenced in an obscure 1963 report from the Entomological Society of Alberta, have almost certainly been trashed by Ottawa.

In 1929 a solid stem wheat was tested for saw fly resistance resulting in the first saw fly resistant wheat “Rescue” being licensed in 1946. This new wheat saved Canadian farmers from having to buy the newest expensive wonder chemical DDT.

Today, farmers still grow midge resistant wheat based on this early work. This insect resistant wheat can be seen as a fine example of science in the public interest that was free of the conflicts-of-interest built into private funding of agricultural research. Would one of the giant foreign-owned agro-chemical-seed companies actually develop a wheat strain which did not need the application of one of their very profitable insecticides?

Students of history know that nothing happens without a context. The same applies to political movements. There is a strain in Conservativism which recognizes the importance of preserving (conserving!) the work of previous generations. However there is also a strain in that political philosophy which has a tradition of burning books which goes back to the Middle Ages. It is now painfully obvious to all but the gullible or dishonest that the book burners are now in control in Ottawa and they have just reached out again to trash another western Canadian asset.

For Further Reading:

Public Cereals Plant Breeding wins the yield and cost contest – source materials and history overview

Trashing Cereal Research Center puts GM wheat on the table

Knowledge Massacre

Dismantling of Canada’s Science Libraries

Health Canada Library dismantled

Public Science – what practicing scientists have to say about cuts

Canadian Wheat Board library and archives destroyed

Commentary:

Giving away our future

Ottawa’s Science experiment on farmers

Western Grain a SNAFU in more ways than one

by on Jul 29, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on Western Grain a SNAFU in more ways than one

Private_SNAFUThe Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) along with Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission and Saskatchewan Barley Development Commission hosted the “Farmers Forum on Grain Transportation, Getting on Track: Solutions for the future” in Regina on July 20, 2015.  From the perspective of grain farmers, the results could be characterized with the old military term SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fouled Up).  For the grain companies it is more like:  “Situation Nice, All Finances Up.”

From the academic and impartial presenters at the APAS conference, the message was essentially the same: “more grain than ever is moving to port but farmers are not seeing either higher prices or fair delivery opportunities” and “farmers have no market power and are getting fleeced by the private trade.”  No surprises there.  The numbers have changed but not the structure.

What has changed is the spin put on this.  Now instead of farmers having no market power, they are characterized using the softer and more traditional “price takers.”  And the grain companies, instead of taking “excess profits” are now characterized as “rationing access to the system” by increasing the basis levels they charge farmers to get their grain into the system.  In other words, how desperate the farmer is to sell determines how badly he is fleeced by the grain companies.

But hey, it is not really the devil making the grain companies do this.  The grain company apologists say it is the railways!  And the grain companies complain the railways sometimes don’t deliver a handful of cars on time.  Never mind that the numbers show the railways are delivering more grain than ever to port.

Faced with this fact the argument then shifts to claiming that is not really the railways’ fault either because our system does not have enough capacity now.  How do we know this? The market, it is claimed, is telling us.  This fairy story goes that the grain companies are being forced by the invisible hand of the market to charge farmers excessive basis, aka “profits,”  to get them to stop calling the elevators wanting to deliver grain for sale so the elevator companies can re-sell it and make excess profits.  The logic here seems to be that if we take the telephone away from farmers, then they will not hassle the elevator companies and force them to charge farmers excess basis.

If that strikes you as a bit of self-serving circular logic, it is and don’t blame me, I’m just the reporter.  You can read the original documents here.

Private trade apologists look for solutions

Private trade apologists look for solutions

The Frontier Center for Public Policy predictably blamed government regulations.  Their revelation appears to be that the grain companies are charging excess basis because the railways are over-regulated.  Presumably if the railways could take their share of excess profits from those price-taking farmers all would be well.

Farmers who are captive to both the railways and grain companies might not be happy, but two out of three components in the grain system certainly would be.  More pathetic by far was the grasping for “market solutions” to this mess that did not involve anything that would actually regulate how the players in the grain market behave.

How that market actually behaves was very well explained by the eminently clear spoken Montana-based consultant Terry Whiteside.  He explained that when the US deregulated its railways in the 1980s there were 40 major railways.  Now there are a mere 4 left and they have divided up the country “into their own regional monopolies.”  So he essentially said their US Surface Transportation Board would have to impose more regulation to make their system work so it did not suck the life out of their agricultural producers – producers who still enjoy generous US government production subsidies by the way.

Given the US experience, not to mention the mess western Canadian farmers are now facing, it makes all the so-called market solutions in transportation seem less than timely or useful.

Of course nobody at the conference even alluded to the one market solution that actually made our transportation and handling system work efficiently and fairly for everyone including farmers and small processors:  the recently deceased single-desk Canadian Wheat Board.  Instead the grain companies are calling on the railways to buy more locomotives and grain cars, the railways are calling on the grain companies to get their act together and build more capacity, and both of them seem to expect farmers to pay for it all.

Perhaps Grain Summit 2016 or whatever it is called will finally come to the conclusion there are in fact zero market solutions to western Canada’s landlocked status that do not involve either draconian government regulation or a single-desk Canadian Wheat Board.

Perhaps Ottawa may even come to acknowledge that the single-desk Wheat Board which evolved after much trial, error, and misery on the prairies was in fact the only viable market-based solution available.  But as many of us know, evolution can really be offensive to those who still believe in “invisible hands moving in mysterious ways.”

Since farmers are the ones who pay for all this nonsense, perhaps it is also time for gatherings like these to focus on restoring the institutions which actually worked that Ottawa has so recently destroyed rather than outlining the SNAFU we all are now living with.  Then we would truly be getting “on track.”

Cool win a loss for Canadians

by on Jul 20, 2015 in Blog | 1 comment

This year’s spring seeding was largely uneventful thanks to very favorable weather which now appears to be sliding into a less favourable drought in parts of the prairies.  However the headlines have not stopped nor has the damage from our ham-handed but ideologically pure friends in Ottawa.

A pedigreed seed grower tells me that last year’s decision by Agriculture Minister Ritz to kill the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s inspections of pedigree seeded land and give the job to private companies has added an additional 25% to inspection costs on his operation.  We both wondered how soon those private inspectors will become agents of one of the giant agro-chemical-seed companies now that impartial government inspectors are gone.

Speaking of giant agro-chemical-seed companies, Syngenta and Monsanto were reported in merger/takeover talks offering further evidence that competition and the pursuit of shareholder profits may not always lead to more competition and choice.

Of course the great comedy of the spring has been the ongoing COOL (Country Of Origin Labelling) saga between Ottawa and the US over the idea US citizens have a right to know where their meat comes from.  Minister Ritz has promised hell-fire and brimstone will rain down on Yankee wine and other exports to Canada if COOL is not repealed.

CWB Polar Bear

Single-desk CWB Promotional Poster

Now an objective observer might wonder why Canadian cattle growers and Minister Ritz are so opposed to COOL.  Don’t we have the cleanest cattle herd on the planet and isn’t it arguably raised in the cleanest environment on the planet?

Why wouldn’t they want to capitalize on that? After all, the Canadian Wheat Board had a long tradition of successfully using Canada’s wholesome reputation to sell grain.  The single-desk CWB allowed western Canadian wheat and barley farmers to retain the beneficial ownership of their grain from their farms right to the end use customer.  This meant the extra costs of providing quality-assurance to those premium customers were more than off-set by increased sales and premium prices which were returned directly to western Canada’s grain farmers by their single-desk wheat board.

Cattle, however, are different.  Almost all Canadian cattle are processed by just two packing plants in Alberta that have somewhere north of 90% of Canada’s beef packing capacity.  Like grain farmers without the single-desk CWB, cattle farmers surrender ownership of their crop   to the big processors when they leave the farm.  For these processors the benefits of promoting Canadian beef as a premium product apparently do not outweigh the segregation costs that would come with COOL.  So Canadian beef producers are unlikely to see their beef treated as the premium product it most certainly is.  Nor are they likely to see price premiums like Canadian grain farmers got when their single-desk CWB capitalized on our high quality-assured wheat and barley.

It will be interesting to watch the tug of war between big business and consumer interests in the US over COOL in the coming months.  Given the US Congress has just backed industry by blocking labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients, the outcome on COOL seems obvious.  Whatever happens, look for Minister Ritz to claim he is defending western farmers while handing over control of our food to big business.

While we are on the subject of cattle, Minister Ritz spent much of the winter reassuring dairy farmers that supply management will be defended in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks now nearly completed – at least until this Friday when he started to alter his position with the usual weasel words all too familiar to those who follow politics.  The TPP is another treaty designed to make the world safe for giant corporations to access cheap raw materials from Canada – this time for the Pacific Rim countries.  Dairy farmers may need reminding that it was the same Minister Ritz who broke his promise to grain farmers that they would have a vote on killing the single-desk CWB.

Indebted dairy farmers, perhaps anticipating a fat federal government cheque to compensate them for the value of their dairy quota going to zero, may wish to remember that it is Minister Ritz’s government that has fought the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board tooth and nail to prevent farmers from receiving compensation for the value destroyed with the end of the single-desk CWB.

On the topic of governments, who can forget that two giant foreign government owned entities — G3 group, partly owned by the Saudi Arabian government and COFCO owed by the Chinese government — have both announced plans to consolidate their places in the international grain market with nary a peep out of Ottawa about the implications for Canadian farmers and Canada’s food security.  Apparently it is okay for foreign governments to take control of our grains production through government owned single-desk buying agencies, but western farmers are not even given a vote on keeping their own single-desk marketing/selling agency.

Adding insult to injury Ottawa has seen fit to give the remaining assets of the Canadian Wheat Board to the G3 group for a promise of future investment.  Of course, as the National Farmers Union observed, this investment will do nothing to enhance farm gate prices.

Last but not least, the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board have been allowed by the Federal Court to examine how Minister Ritz’s Wheat Board handled farmers’ money after his appointees took charge half way through the crop year.

It has definitely been an eventful spring with implications for farmers in the west well beyond dusty fields.

Alberta goes orange

by on May 6, 2015 in Blog | 1 comment

– and reasserts its cooperative heritage

Rachel Notley

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley

(May 6, 2015) Watching last night’s Alberta election results were at once surprising and inspiring – surprising because of the scale of the upset after 44 years of the same party in power.

Inspiring because the NDP victory under Rachel Notley builds on an Alberta tradition of cooperation and community development much deeper than the more recently discovered oil wealth of this province.

It was farmers in the poorest part of Alberta who first had their municipal government open hospitals and hire nurses and doctors to provide community medical services for their citizens.

The oldest retail cooperative in Alberta started west of Red Deer over 100 years ago.  The City of Calgary was the home of the forerunner of the NDP, the aptly named Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.  The Alberta Wheat Pool held its founding convention in Calgary.  With the support of Alberta grain farmers the Famous Five fought for the rights of women to be recognized as persons.

Alberta farmers also built an extensive network of cooperatives to provide everything from creameries, electrical services, rural telephone service, grain handling, home and auto insurance, as well as marketing boards for most agricultural commodities.  It was only with the oil boom of the late 1970s that these institutions came under attack and many were slowly undermined.

The cooperative tradition runs very deep in Alberta and Rachel Notley and her party hail from that rich tradition.  Albertans have taken courage into their hands and voted to build on that tradition.

Time will tell if the rest of the prairies also re-discover their own heritage of cooperation.  However, the outcome of the Alberta election shows that restoring the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board is no longer as distant or as difficult as it may have seemed yesterday.

Ritz gives away Canadian control of grain marketing Icon

by on Apr 16, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on Ritz gives away Canadian control of grain marketing Icon

(April 16, 2015)  Less than five business days after the Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the claims of western farmers that they had a property interest in the value of the single-desk Wheat Board, Federal Agriculture Minister Ritz announced the sale of its remaining assets to a combination of Bunge, one of the smaller of the big four international grain companies, and a Saudi Arabian company “formed for the purpose of investing in Canada’s agricultural grain industry” according to the news release accompanying Ritz’s announcement.

Now that Minister Ritz has moved ahead with transferring ownership from Canada to foreign interests it is useful to remember that it was just six months ago he rejected an offer from Saskatoon based Farmers of North America, a 10,000 farmer membership company supplying farm inputs saying there was no time to consider it.  Now six months later we have this.

Minister explains sale  - Not exactly as illustrated

Minister explains sale
– Not exactly as illustrated

Most farmers also remember Minister Ritz’s infamous promise before the last Federal election that farmers would have a vote on ending the Wheat Board single-desk.  That promise lasted until the Harper administration received its much coveted majority courtesy of the voters in the greater Toronto area.

In yesterday’s press conference the Minister even had the audacity to accuse one young farmer of making things up when he asked the Minister how he could ignore the independently conducted plebiscite of 40,000 prairie wheat and barley producers held in 2011 showing 62% of farmers supported keeping the single-desk CWB.  You can see a promotional video for the plebiscite here and you can see the plebiscite results summarized here.

Farmers also remember and can still look at the last audited statement from the farmer-controlled single-desk CWB which showed its assets had no significant debts against them aside from two laker-type grain ships which would have been paid off in less than five years.  So Minister Ritz’s excuses about being forced to put taxpayer money into the organization after he took it over ring a little hollow for this writer, especially when he is the first agriculture Minister in over 75 years who has refused to table a full audited statement for his crippled Wheat Board.  This secrecy lends credibility to charges the CWB sale was effectively subsidized with taxpayer money.

Killing the single-desk CWB and transferring its remaining assets to the private sector amounts to “the most massive transfer of wealth and earning power from farmers to the international trade in Canadian history” according to quotes from a number of informed people.

Earning power” is the key part of that quote because it was the single-desk which gave the CWB its collective bargaining power and was also the key to the complex web it administered to extract maximum value from international customers for western Canadian farmers while providing high end customers like Saudi Arabia and others with quality-assured product.  As has been said before, the CWB without the single-desk is a much diminished and less valuable organization both to western farmers and their former customers.

However, the buyers of what is left of the old CWB may still find themselves suffering “buyers’ remorse” over the next few years.  The first thing they will discover is the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board still have a very active case attached to some of the remaining assets of the old Wheat Board.

Secondly, some of the buyers may be under the impression they are buying the old Wheat Board, the one with the international reputation for quality assurance, reliable delivery, a high-end customer base, and most importantly a very dedicated membership of the most astute grain farmers in Western Canada.  This strong majority of prairie farmers consistently elected 8 out of 10 farmer-elected directors who pledged to keep the single-desk farmer-controlled Wheat Board.  This is the same group whose votes Minister Ritz and his predecessor Minister Strahl did their best to sabotage and ignore.

The next thing the buyers may well discover is that the reputation and even the very ability to economically provide quality assurance which was one of the pillars of the farmer-run single-desk CWB effectively ended with the single-desk.  To date the replacements offered by the private trade have not measured up.  Farmers are not happy with low prices and former high end customers are on very public record complaining about our “crappy wheat.”

With the loss of democratic Canadian control of our grain marketing and crop genetics to giant foreign corporations both the Canadian public and Canadian farmers are left to ask how secure their food futures really are.

Supreme Court makes second class citizens of farmers

by on Apr 9, 2015 in Blog | 3 comments

(April 9, 2015) Today the Supreme Court of Canada rejected a Leave to Appeal by the Friends of the Canadian Wheat Board (FCWB). You can read the FCWB news release here.

What this boils down to is that in spite of the fact the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) brand had tremendous value to farmers just as patents, like the ones Monsanto has been granted on genetics, have tremendous value to their owners, the Supreme Court has rejected allowing western grain farmers who paid for the CWB to seek compensation from Ottawa for that loss.

It escapes this writer how the learned judges of the Supreme Court could have failed to understand that every penny that went into building the CWB brand and its assets since 1935 came directly out of the Pool Accounts. In my world when you pay for something you own it, period and full stop. If someone takes it you expect fair compensation for the value of what was taken. And if it is taken without permission or compensation most people would call that “theft.”

Supreme Court crowns the Minister may not be exactly as illustrated

Supreme Court crowns the Minister
may not be exactly as illustrated

However, Ottawa argued that “Parliament is supreme” and did not need to offer farmers compensation. The latest from the Supreme Court of Canada confirms this view. In practice this means that unless Parliament specifically authorizes compensation when they seize something, no compensation to the owners is required.

This stance strikes at the very heart of property ownership rights and natural justice. It is a wonder that today’s Ottawa Conservatives are happy with this turn of events. Joseph Stalin would be happy, Fidel Castro would be happy, but would real Conservatives like former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker who supported the single-desk and brought us the Bill of Rights agree?

From a dollars and cents point of view, this is quite a loss to western grain farmers. The first year without the single-desk Wheat Board saw the grain companies exercise their new place as middlemen between farmers and their customers and take a little over $1.7 billion dollars out of the western grain economy on # 2 CWRS wheat alone. You can get the full details on that loss here and you can see the latest loss documented here or here.

Overall farmers have now produced three crops without the single-desk and have seen their share of the international price of grain go from around 90% with the single-desk to around 40% with the private trade. Some agricultural economists project the farmers’ share will fall to around 20% as grain handling consolidates even further. In the foreign headquarters of the multinational grain giants they should be toasting the Supreme Court tonight.

What is even worse is that a few weeks ago the Supreme Court recognized that workers have a right to form a labour union and to take strike action. In other words workers have the right to bargain collectively and to enjoy the fruits of their collective bargaining. The single-desk Wheat Board was no different than a labour union bargaining collectively or a joint-stock company manufacturing widgets. Just like the manufacturer, grain farmers had an authorized dealer (the Wheat Board) to market their product and they used part of those sales (the Pool Accounts) to build their brand reputation and sell their product directly to customers instead of paying a middleman.

So I conclude that the Supreme Court justices, in their wisdom, have now made western farmers second class citizens in comparison to union members or shareholders in companies. While this ruling is perhaps legally correct it does hurt to be relegated to second class status for working with my neighbours to have a collective bargaining organization.

Grasslands matter too

by on Mar 24, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on Grasslands matter too

Last year I wrote that most urban people have little conception of the vandalism of basic agricultural resources Ottawa is responsible for.

These resources have been paid for by all Canadians and include things like 2.5 million acres of grassland preserved by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act. These community pasture grasslands are an important part of the overall prairie ecology. A diverse ecology is more stable and resilient to change, and that is also good for grain farming as well.

Photo courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Photo courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Ottawa wants to give these fragile grassland areas, home to a wondrous diversity of prairie plants and wildlife, to the Province of Saskatchewan and the Province has indicated it would like to break up this land and sell it to private owners. It is not too late to object. Go to the PFRA Grasslands  web site for further information and how to register your objection to selling off an irreplaceable public asset of value to all Canadians.

These great grasslands are still home to many native wildlife species. This grassland ecology is dependent on grazing animals. For millennia bison were the major grazing species. After their decline, largely due to unregulated slaughter south of the medicine line, much of this fragile grassland was damaged by being broken up for grain production.

antelope-trevor1

Photo courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

However, since 1935 careful management by a partnership of cattle ranchers and Agriculture Canada scientists has restored, preserved, and enhanced this grass land ecology for its native species of plants and animals with cattle doing the ecological work the bison once did. Help preserve this legacy for future generations of Canadians by adding your voice.

Trade deals no impediment

by on Mar 16, 2015 in Blog | Comments Off on Trade deals no impediment

Then we told them the trade deals were written in stone

Then we told them the trade deals were written in stone

The March 5, 2015 Saskatoon Star Phoenix published an article titled “Trade deals no impediment to restoring CWB” which made the simple point that national interests always trump international trade deals.

Why is restoring the single-desk CWB essential for western Canadian grain farmers? The great infrastructure of the international grain trade has not changed at all since 1900. There are still four giant companies that buy and sell what amounts to all the marketable grain in the world market. There are still thousands of individual farmers in western Canada isolated from that world market by great distances, mountains, and oceans. This is why the single-desk Wheat Board was created in the first place and why restoring it is essential for western farmers

In the grain industry economies of scale are crucial, which is really why there are only four giant grain companies. A single-desk working for western farmers is a way for western farmers to have some counter-balancing market power by gaining economies of scale through orderly marketing.

Given the robbery from farmers’ grain cheques documented by this organization and others since the single desk was killed there is no credible argument to be made against reinstating a single-desk Wheat Board if the interests of western farmers are important.

However, some people feel that the restrictions created by the single-desk were philosophically unacceptable which is fair enough. However is the small and arguably illusionary freedom they gained worth the costs to western Canadian farmers and our economy we now see?

You can read the article on trade deals in the Star Phoenix by clicking here, or read it on this web site by clicking here.

To quote Alberta farmer Bernie von Tettenborn in last week’s Western Producer:

“We are told we can’t get the old CWB back because of agreements. What are we, a colony of another country? We have our own country and our own government and we should be able to legislate what is best for our own economy.”

The answer to Mr. von Tettenborn’s question is we are still a democracy and we can democratically choose how the economy is managed and for whose benefit. All it takes, as has been said, is a little backbone.

More fairy dust and false hope

by on Feb 26, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments

A gift from Ottawa

A gift from Ottawa

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 usually 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.

Argentina moves to protect its wheat farmers

by on Feb 3, 2015 in Blog | 2 comments

Readers may know that only four countries consistently produce grain for sale in international markets: the US, Canada, Australia, and Argentina. Yesterday Reuters reported that Argentina will be denying export permits to the international grain oligopoly (the so-called ABCD group) because they are not paying Argentinean grain producers a fair share of the world price.

Argentina’s Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, responding to complaints from wheat farmers said “We will only give export permits when the price that these exporters pay the producer is near to the international price.” According to the Minister the giant international grain companies are withholding more than 30% of the international grain price, short-changing farmers.

Western Canadian farmers should be so lucky. We have seen our share of the international wheat price decline from 90% with the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board to around 40%.

Grain Marketing Think Tank at Work – Not exactly as illustrated

So to recap, the Argentinean Economics Minister is punishing the international grain trade because they are taking 30% of the world price for themselves; while the Canadian Agriculture Minister is blathering on about how good western Canadian farmers have it when the international grain trade is taking better than 60% of the world price away from them. New projections that western Canadian farmers could see as little as 20% of the world price as the smaller Canadian grain handling firms are swallowed up by the international oligarchs means more trouble ahead.

So the news from Argentina shows that western Canadian farmers without the Wheat Board are actually worse off than Argentina’s wheat producers. Perhaps we should export Minister Ritz along with the boat load of fairy dust he has been peddling to cover up the consequences of Ottawa’s killing of the farmer-owned and controlled single-desk Canadian Wheat Board.