Monday, 28 February 2011

Daily Bread

You've just spent a hundred and twenty dollars buying groceries, the cart has been slipping and sliding through the parking lot to your vehicle,  and the car only warms up when you're turning into the driveway at home. It's not easy in the middle of a cold Canadian winter to feel thankful for the food we eat.  If you take a pace back though it's a pretty good deal. We shop in clean, well stocked stores, with products from around the world, and while it may be hard to believe, Canadians pay a smaller percentage of their disposable income on food than anyone in the world.  There's extraordinary value at Canadian supermarkets, with a handful of retailers beating their brains out to keep your business, frantic to keep the biggest retail dog in the business, Walmart, out of the neighborhood.  The business pages are full of cautionary tales from big retailers like Loblaws, which operates the Superstores in the Maritimes.

New president for Loblaw
Loblaw Cos. Ltd. today named a new president to replace Allan Leigton later this year.
Vincente Trius is a seasoned international retail executive who will move to Canada in the coming months and join the company in the second half of the year, Globe and Mail retail writer Marina Strauss reports today.
Mr. Leighton, who arrived at Loblaw as deputy chairman in 2006, is a British retail veteran who has spearheaded Loblaw’s turnaround over the past four years.
Loblaw's announcement today came as the giant grocer also reported its fourth-quarter profit fell to $151-million or 54 cents a share from $165-million or 60 cents a year earlier. Sales slipped to $7.16-billion from $7.31-billion.
“In the year ahead, we expect to continue our focus on executing the plan in a market environment that remains unpredictable and competitively intense,” Loblaw executive chairman Galen G. Weston said in a statement.

Most farmers in the Maritimes would argue "At least they're making a profit!" It's hard for people who work for a paycheck to appreciate the concept of negative incomes.  You might not make as much money as you think you're worth, and you're boss is definitely getting overpaid, but you  get up every day,   get to work on time, and put your hours in.  While the money might not stick around very long, you expect your bank account to be increased every second Thursday.  It's different for farmers, fishermen, and other small business people. You can put a lot of time and effort into your work, do everything you're supposed to, and be worse off financially at the end of the year. As a group this is what Maritime farmers have been going through for almost a decade now  (not every farmer, and not every year).  If you want more on this right away  (because I promise you'll be getting more from me in the months ahead)  check out this excellent analysis by a Nova Scotia group.

An agricultural economist once told me that in any given year, because of luck, planning, management, growing conditions in other parts of the world, and so on, about 30% of Canadian farmers make money, and 30% lose money.  So as a reporter you could always find someone who's in trouble, and given the nature of the media to sniff out bad news wherever it might be, those are the farmers the public generally gets to see. It's the basis of all those bad jokes of farmers going to the grave with their hand still out.   What's changed in the last decade is the 40% in the middle, the usually solid citizens who inch ahead over time, and seldomly complain.  These are the farm families who, on paper, were often millionaires a decade ago, but are now being told by their banks to go somewhere else.  Even worse they are now insisting that their children do anything but farm. I'll explore some of the reasons this has happened in the days ahead.

But you may ask,  if farmers have been steadily losing money for the last decade, why doesn't the public see more farm bankruptcies, or abandoned farms. Pride and stubbornness is part of it, but it's the nature of equity that creates a false impression of well being in the summer, when the cattle are out in the field, and brand new tractors and balers are making hay.  (No doubt the equipment is leased , with the dealer wanting to move product and hoping to make money selling it used in a year or two.)

Many Canadians are becoming familiar with home equity loans, low interest money based on the value homeowners have built up as they pay off their mortgage. Farmers do the same thing with their farmland,  buildings and equipment. One of the reasons banks and other lenders move so cautiously on essentially broke farmers is that putting too much land on the market too quickly will depress farmland values, and  lower the equity position of all their other clients, putting more loans at risk.  So equity can act like a cash machine that allows farmers to keep going one more year, the provincial economy benefits from all the expenditures and costs farmers rack up to produce a crop,  and the outward appearance to anyone who drives by the farm, is that everything is jim dandy. 

Many farmers have told me that there's a moment when debt levels get so high that it  becomes virtually meaningless. You keep writing cheques to pay your bills, and as long as the bank honours them, you stay in business.  Average debt levels on PEI farms have gone up by more than four hundred percent (400%) in the last thirty years, and while economists like Jeff Rubin continue to argue that Canadian farmers are in for boom times, farmers keep wondering when that day will come. 

This isn't to say anyone should feel sorry for farmers. They're grown people operating very sophisticated businesses, with the potential year by year to make a bundle. It is an argument to recognize that at this moment, the food business is rewarding consumers with exceptional value, and that  food processors and retailers will improve their bottom line not by charging more at the cash register, but by squeezing their suppliers (ie. farmers), and they have more than enough economic power to do it.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

This Could be Important

There has been no more interesting, or difficult, story to cover than the dreaded GMO's (you know.. genetically modified organisms).  One side promising a return to the Garden of Eden, the other, Apocalypse Now.  One side very button-downed and corporate, the other grass roots and passionate. Both sides (on the margins at least) telling untruths to make their case.

As a reporter you're supposed to provide balance and not take sides. You look for people who have strong opinions and care about the issue, and the end result for those viewers/readers who haven't already chosen sides, in my mind, is total confusion.   Thinking hard about GMO's can make your head hurt.

Agriculture started about 10,000 years ago, and at some point someone (probably a woman, maybe just the wind or birds and bees) ) wondered if crossing two varieties with excellent characteristics, would create something better.  That's genetic modification.

Now we have giant corporations with very smart people in white lab coats using powerful (if not very accurate) techniques to blast genes into  plant genomes to "help" nature create something better, at least different, certainly patentable and privately owned . (For all the billions spent, lawsuits, books written, and documentaries shot, it's amazing that mostly what's been created are grains and oilseeds that can survive the spraying of  a certain class of herbicide:.glyphosphate like Round-up). There are certainly many other products (including the Aquabounty salmon, the first GM animal)  that are at various stages of approval.

There is a fascinating branch of  plant variety development called Cis-Genesis.

It uses genetic engineering techniques , but within the same family of plants.  Are these GMO's as we've come to know/hate them, or is there room to broaden the definition of what's OK?  The media in my mind has drawn a very sharp line in the sand between GMO and non-GMO, and I think drawn it in the wrong place, mainly because it's a simpler story to tell.

Back to recent developments. Late last month Monsanto got approval to sell Round-up ready alfalfa in the United States (not in Canada yet).  I think this is a watershed moment.  The Round-up ready soybeans, canola, cotton, sugar beets, and so on. have all been row crops, planted and harvested in one year. Alfalfa has traditionally been a forage crop (hay, silage mixed with other grasses and grains) to feed livestock, and an important green manure to improve soil organic levels.  It's a perennial, planted one year and  continues to come up every spring. It's a plant that attracts bees and other pollinators,  so it's genes will move around, and  be with us forever.  That's what makes this development more important.

Certified organic farmers have stringent rules to follow to maintain their certified status and keep access to growing organic markets. They can't use GMO varieites, and obviously could have their crops "contaminated" by pollinators moving from one field to another.

This week another red flag came up that could have have enormous  implications. Don Huber is a respected plant scientist, and a well-known opponent of GMO technologies and products.  He's earned his opinions, and says he's found evidence of what he's calling microscopic pathogens in "Round-up ready" crops that he says are  a huge threat to the health of livestock, plants and humans.  It's the Round-up itself that he thinks is causing the problem, but obviously the development of Round-up ready crops using genetic engineering is what has lead to the huge spike, and widespread use of the herbicide.

And there's one more cautionary tale that appeared this week. Lawyers  for public interest groups are reminding farmers what's in the fine print of the Monsanto contract they sign to grow Round-up ready crops.  Any  liability (current and future)  is the responsibility of the farmer, not the company.  Link that with the long-term risk of Round-up ready alfalfa to neighbouring farms (who knows how important organic markets will be to PEI, and elsewhere in the future),  and farmers have even more to think about.

Canada has carved out its own path on GMO products in the past (think of  rBST, the Monsanto created dairy hormone which increases milk production).  Eugene Whelan and PEI's own Wayne Easter did a lot to keep it out of Canada, for now.  The dairy industry benefits from supply management which assures farmers a reasonable return and negates the need to crank more milk out of each cow.  I think it's time for another national discussion on Round-up ready alfalfa while Canada still has the chance to stop its approval.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Let's Say Grace First

It was the "thanks" that always made the most sense to me when my family said grace all those decades ago. It was who to thank that began to gnaw away at me in my early teens. God seemed a little distant, and if he/she existed, should have been paying more attention to wars and assassinations than raising chickens.  Someone else had more to do with putting food on our table.

I was a city kid (Montreal). In the summer we'd head to the country and could watch the cattle grazing, sweet corn growing, and we always had a small vegetable garden and compost pile on the go.  Where the food came from started to become a little more clear.

When I was sixteen, I lied about my age to get a job with Eastern Canada Stevedoring to get a chance to see the Arctic. The city kid ended up in Resolute Bay unloading supply ships for the Inuit villages, and U.S. Airforce  base.  The sun never set which was one thing, but it was my introduction to hunting, and living "off the land."  One of the Inuit elders told me they always hunted the bravest and fiercest animals because, by eating them, humans took on their strength and courage. Just as important was the gratitude the  Inuit felt for having food to eat, and the sacrifice made by the animal who had been hunted. This gave me more to think about.

After finishing university in 1971(an economics degree I've done little with) and teaching for two years in New Brunswick, I ended up as a sessional lecturer at Carleton University  with ten acres of swampy land south of Ottawa. I started market gardening during the summer and fall and finally discovered once and for all producing food, while satisfying, is very hard work. Spending two hours picking seven or eight pounds of beans and getting about five dollars for them at a farmers' market taught me a lot.

Someone asked me to write for a radio show at the community station CKCU. Someone else put my name in for a job at CBC as a joke. After an interview where I had nothing to lose (I had no journalism degree, or contacts at CBC) I was shocked to be offered a job with a local Radio Noon on CBC Radio. At that time Radio Noons were "in the service of agriculture".  It sounds a little quaint now, but back then the media, and certainly CBC took farming very seriously.  That's when I had to turn my curiosity about "where the food comes from" into something more thoughtful.

Within the CBC you're supposed to work to get  to Ottawa or Toronto, but I quickly realized I wanted to go the other way.  In 1981 I arrived in Charlottetown to produce radio shows covering farming and fishing. I quickly met a number of people who helped me over the years navigate through not just the economics, but the politics of the food business. ( I was immediately  told by Fred McCardle  that a potato is 20% carbohydrate, and 80% politics, and if I remembered that I'd be OK).

I left the CBC in 2009, but remain even more interested and concerned about what's happening to farm families and rural communities on PEI. And with no CBC producers hanging over my shoulder, I'd like to keep exploring and asking questions that I think matter.

I'm hoping this website, and blog (I keep being told I've got to do Facebook too, but I'll stubbornnly resist Twitter as long as I can) will be a place where farmers and consumers can come to think about the food we eat, how it gets to the table, who's doing the work, and who's making the money.  There will be differences, even conflict, between how consumers and producers see the food industry, and I won't shy away from that, but there are tools used in conflict resolution that look for common "interests", where people agree. That doesn't always suit the conflict driven media, but that's something I  want to explore too. Here on PEI, we have dirt, water , wind, and transfer payments to sustain us, and if we're going into a stretch of government restraint at all  levels (we won't see it in this election year) then we'd better hope the primary industries can regain some financial viability, or we're all in trouble.

I want to point people at good agriculture/food journalism that's out there (recent stuff::

and  video:

I hope others will tell the rest of us about the important food stories they come across too. My plan is try to regularly update this blog (notice how I'm avoiding the word daily, my partner sells and hybridizes Daylilies which demands lots of stooped labour.) I've got some opinions about things that will become clear over time, but I like learning too.

What I really want to do is provoke (I love all the definitions for this word: call forth (emotions, feelings, and responses); "raise a smile"; "evoke sympathy"; "incite"; "aggravate";"annoy"), but just as importantly  give thanks to the people who really matter in the food business: the people who produce it, and the thoughtful consumers who recognize that where their food dollars go will do more to shape the economic and social future of this province and country than any political promise or government program.