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ATAMANENKO: Time for new agriculture policies

After years of deteriorating farm income, mounting debt and ill-designed income stability programs, can life on Canadian farms get worse?  It certainly appears so. The government is forecasting that the price of many farm commodities will decline in 2010.  And despite a complete overhaul by the Conservative government, farm income programs are causing the same level of frustration for farmers as the failed programs they were supposed to replace. Between the global economic downturn, climate impacts and bad government policies, farmers are hitting the wall. If interest rates continue to rise, it could very well be a fatal blow for many of them.

Over the past two years I have hosted public forums in 28 communities across Canada as part of the NDP’s national “Food for Thought” tour to hear thoughts and concerns about our food system. My report and recommendations have now been released. We are calling for federal leadership on a Canadian food strategy – a message I heard time and time again.  People want all levels of government to come together in support of local food initiatives, and to ensure that our agriculture sector is sustainable. Many of the people I spoke to believe we have become far too dependent on imported food have begun taking steps to support a local food economy.

The May 2010 report from the Standing Committee on Agriculture, which was based on a two year study of competitiveness in Canadian agriculture, reveals how difficult it has been for farmers to obtain fair prices in a marketplace dominated by monopolistic agribusiness corporations.  The 1926-2006 farm income graph prepared for the Committee by the National Farmers Union (NFU), shows that Canadian farmers have netted a mere $3 billion out of the $802 billion worth of farm products sold into the marketplace since 1985! Globally dominant corporations have managed to capture the other $799 billion. With such shocking statistics can we really expect farmers to keep on producing for nothing the raw materials upon which so much of Canada’s economic and food security depends?  Is it any surprise that few young farmers are keen or even able to take on the family farm? 

On a recent tour in BC to meet with young farmers, the Committee learned that apple producers are being undercut by imported apples from foreign countries. They complained that a lack of enforcement on country-of-origin labeling made it difficult for customers to identify Canadian apples even if they wanted to support local farmers.  They point to the absurdity of producers having to rip out perfectly good orchards to plant other crops because they can no longer afford to compete with subsidized Washington State apples that are being dumped into the market at a time when the region already has a surplus.

Easy credit is one of the hallmarks of the Conservative government’s new bundle of business risk management programs - but crippling debt is one of the reasons why farmers can’t get ahead.  This hardly seems a solution that will lead to greater economic power in the marketplace.

If the government would move in a meaningful way to ensure that farmers earn their fair share from the sale of the food they produce, there could be some hope. Unfortunately what we are seeing promoted instead by this government is more of the same tired policies that continue to bring an ever increasing number of farmers closer to the point of no return.

This year let’s all support the local economy and make every attempt to buy food that has been produced in or around the BC Southern Interior.