Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Dining a Step Closer to Nature

There is a danger writing a blog. You can be a little indulgent, wanting to keep writing about what you're interested in, and I've got ideas for six more pieces on supply management (don't worry I'll let them simmer).

So here are a couple of pieces that have received a lot of attention, but just in case you  didn't see them. They relate to dirt in our food (local dirt is always better of course), and  important new research into the microbes in our bodies. Both these issues have huge cultural impediments (Mr Clean was wrong all these years?), but in my mind make a lot of sense.


The New York Times

June 20, 2012
Dirtying Up Our Diets

OVER 7,000 strong and growing, community farmers’ markets are being heralded as a panacea for what ails our sick nation. The smell of fresh, earthy goodness is the reason environmentalists approve of them, locavores can’t live without them, and the first lady has hitched her vegetable cart crusade to them. As health-giving as those bundles of mouthwatering leafy greens and crates of plump tomatoes are, the greatest social contribution of the farmers’ market may be its role as a delivery vehicle for putting dirt back into the American diet and in the process, reacquainting the human immune system with some “old friends.”

Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us. As nature’s blanket, the potentially pathogenic and benign microorganisms associated with the dirt that once covered every aspect of our preindustrial day guaranteed a time-honored co-evolutionary process that established “normal” background levels and kept our bodies from overreacting to foreign bodies. This research suggests that reintroducing some of the organisms from the mud and water of our natural world would help avoid an overreaction of an otherwise healthy immune response that results in such chronic diseases as Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and a host of allergic disorders.

In a world of hand sanitizer and wet wipes (not to mention double tall skinny soy vanilla lattes), we can scarcely imagine the preindustrial lifestyle that resulted in the daily intake of trillions of helpful organisms. For nearly all of human history, this began with maternal transmission of beneficial microbes during passage through the birth canal — mother to child. However, the alarming increase in the rate of Caesarean section births means a potential loss of microbiota from one generation to the next. And for most of us in the industrialized world, the microbial cleansing continues throughout life. Nature’s dirt floor has been replaced by tile; our once soiled and sooted bodies and clothes are cleaned almost daily; our muddy water is filtered and treated; our rotting and fermenting food has been chilled; and the cowshed has been neatly tucked out of sight. While these improvements in hygiene and sanitation deserve applause, they have inadvertently given rise to a set of truly human-made diseases.

While comforting to the germ-phobic public, the too-shiny produce and triple-washed and bagged leafy greens in our local grocery aisle are hardly recognized by our immune system as food. The immune system is essentially a sensory mechanism for recognizing microbial challenges from the environment. Just as your tongue and nose are used to sense suitability for consumption, your immune system has receptors for sampling the environment, rigorous mechanisms for dealing with friend or foe, and a memory. Your immune system even has the capacity to learn.

For all of human history, this learning was driven by our near-continuous exposure from birth and throughout life to organisms as diverse as mycobacteria from soil and food; helminth, or worm parasites, from just about everywhere you turned; and daily recognition and challenges from our very own bacteria. Our ability to regulate our allergic and inflammatory responses to these co-evolved companions is further compromised by imbalances in the gut microbiota from overzealous use of antibiotics (especially in early childhood) and modern dietary choices.

The suggestion that we embrace some “old friends” does not immediately imply that we are inviting more food-borne illness — quite the contrary. Setting aside for the moment the fact that we have the safest food supply in human history, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and food processing plants and farmers continue to take the blame for the tainted food that makes us ill, while our own all-American sick gut may deserve some blame as well.

While the news media and litigators have our attention focused on farm-to-table food safety and disease surveillance, the biological question of why we got sick is all but ignored. And by asking why an individual’s natural defenses failed, we insert personal responsibility into our national food safety strategy and draw attention to the much larger public health crisis, of which illness from food-borne pathogens is but a symptom of our minimally challenged and thus overreactive immune system.

As humans have evolved, so, too, have our diseases. Autoimmune disease affects an estimated 50 million people at an annual cost of more than $100 billion. And the suffering and monetary costs are sure to grow. Maybe it’s time we talk more about human ecology when we speak of the broader environmental and ecological concerns of the day. The destruction of our inner ecosystem surely deserves more attention as global populations run gut-first into the buzz saw of globalization and its microbial scrubbing diet. But more important, we should seriously consider making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine, or making its core principles compulsory in secondary education. Currently they are not.

As we move deeper into a “postmodern” era of squeaky-clean food and hand sanitizers at every turn, we should probably hug our local farmers’ markets a little tighter. They may represent our only connection with some “old friends” we cannot afford to ignore.

Jeff D. Leach is a science and archaeology writer and founder of the Human Food Project.


Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden

    June 18, 2012

For a century, doctors have waged war against bacteria, using antibiotics as their weapons. But that relationship is changing as scientists become more familiar with the 100 trillion microbes that call us home — collectively known as the microbiome.

“I would like to lose the language of warfare,” said Julie Segre, a senior investigator at the National Human Genome Research Institute. “It does a disservice to all the bacteria that have co-evolved with us and are maintaining the health of our bodies.”

This new approach to health is known as medical ecology. Rather than conducting indiscriminate slaughter, Dr. Segre and like-minded scientists want to be microbial wildlife managers.

No one wants to abandon antibiotics outright. But by nurturing the invisible ecosystem in and on our bodies, doctors may be able to find other ways to fight infectious diseases, and with less harmful side effects. Tending the microbiome may also help in the treatment of disorders that may not seem to have anything to do with bacteria, including obesity and diabetes.

“I cannot wait for this to become a big area of science,” said Michael A. Fischbach, a microbiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and an author of a medical ecology manifesto published this month in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Judging from a flood of recent findings about our inner ecosystem, that appears to be happening. Last week, Dr. Segre and about 200 other scientists published the most ambitious survey of the human microbiome yet. Known as the Human Microbiome Project, it is based on examinations of 242 healthy people tracked over two years. The scientists sequenced the genetic material of bacteria recovered from 15 or more sites on their subjects’ bodies, recovering more than five million genes.

The project and other studies like it are revealing some of the ways in which our invisible residents shape our lives, from birth to death.

A number of recent reports shed light on how mothers promote the health of their children by shaping their microbiomes. In a study published last week in the journal PLoS One, Dr. Kjersti Aagaard-Tillery, an obstetrician at Baylor College of Medicine, and her colleagues described the vaginal microbiome in pregnant women. Before she started the study, Dr. Aagaard-Tillery expected this microbiome to be no different from that of women who weren’t pregnant.

“In fact, what we found is the exact opposite,” she said.

Early in the first trimester of pregnancy, she found, the diversity of vaginal bacteria changes significantly. Abundant species become rare, and vice versa.

One of the dominant species in the vagina of a pregnant woman, it turns out, is Lactobacillus johnsonii. It is usually found in the gut, where it produces enzymes that digest milk. It’s an odd species to find proliferating in the vagina, to say the least. Dr. Aagaard-Tillery speculates that changing conditions in the vagina encourage the bacteria to grow. During delivery, a baby will be coated by Lactobacillus johnsonii and ingest some of it. Dr. Aagaard-Tillery suggests that this inoculation prepares the infant to digest breast milk.

The baby’s microbiome continues to grow during breast-feeding. In a study of 16 lactating women published last year, Katherine M. Hunt of the University of Idaho and her colleagues reported that the women’s milk had up to 600 species of bacteria, as well as sugars called oligosaccharides that babies cannot digest. The sugars serve to nourish certain beneficial gut bacteria in the infants, the scientists said. The more the good bacteria thrive, the harder it is for harmful species to gain a foothold.

As the child grows and the microbiome becomes more ecologically complex, it also tutors the immune system. Ecological disruptions can halt this education. In March, Dr. Richard S. Blumberg of Harvard and his colleagues reported an experiment that demonstrates how important this education is.

The scientists reared mice that lacked any microbiome. In their guts and lungs, the germ-free mice developed abnormally high levels of immune cells called invariant natural killer T cells. Normally, these cells trigger a swift response from the immune system against viruses and other pathogens. In Dr. Blumberg’s microbe-free mice, however, they caused harmful inflammation. As adults, the mice were more likely to suffer from asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.

This experiment parallels studies of children in recent years. Children who take high levels of antibiotics may be at greater risk of developing allergies and asthma later on, many researchers have suggested.

Dr. Blumberg and his colleagues found that they could prevent the mice from becoming ill by giving them bacteria while they were still young. Acquiring a microbiome as an adult did not help the rodents.

The Good With the Bad

The diversity of species that make up the microbiome is hard to fathom. But it is even more difficult to understand how the immune system copes with this onslaught. In any one person’s mouth, for example, the scientists of the Human Microbiome Project found about 75 to 100 species. Some that predominate in one person’s mouth may be rare in another person’s. Still, the rate at which they are being discovered indicates that there may be as many as 5,000 species of bacteria that live in the human mouth.

“The closer you look, the more you find,” said Susan M. Huse of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., a contributor to the microbiome project.

Although the project has focused largely on bacteria, the microbiome’s diversity is wider. For example, our bodies also host viruses.

Many species in the human “virome” specialize in infecting our resident bacteria. But in the DNA samples stored in the Human Microbiome Project’s database, Kristine Wylie of Washington University and her colleagues are finding a wealth of viruses that target human cells. It is normal, it seems, for people to have a variety of viruses busily infecting their human hosts. “It’s really pretty striking that even in these healthy people, there really is a virome,” Dr. Wylie said.

The microbiome also includes fungi. In the June 8 issue of the journal Science, David Underhill, a research scientist at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, and his colleagues reported on a wealth of fungal species in the guts of humans and other mammals. In mice, for example, they cataloged 100 species of fungi that are new to science, along with 100 already known. This diversity is all the more remarkable when you consider that it is tolerated by an immune system that has evolved to fight off microbes. Scientists have only a dim understanding of how the system decides which to kill and which to tolerate.

Immune cells fight fungal infections, for example, with a protein called dectin-1, which attaches only to fungi. But Dr. Underhill and his colleagues found that dectin-1 is also essential for tolerating harmless fungi. When they engineered mice that couldn’t produce dectin-1, the mice responded to harmless fungi by producing so much inflammation that their own tissues were damaged.

It’s a good thing that the immune system can rein itself in, because the microbiome carries out many services for us. In the gut, microbes synthesize vitamins and break down tough plant compounds into digestible bits.

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Skin bacteria are also essential, Dr. Segre said. “One of the most important functions of the skin is to serve as a barrier,” she said. Bacteria feed on the waxy secretions of skin cells, and then produce a moisturizing film that keeps our skin supple and prevents cracks — thus keeping out invading pathogens.

Restoring Order to the System

Antibiotics kill off harmful bacteria, but broad-spectrum forms can kill off many desirable species, too. Dr. Fischbach likens antibiotics to herbicides sprayed on a garden. The herbicide kills the unwanted plants, but also kills off the tomatoes and the roses. The gardener assumes that the tomatoes and roses will grow back on their own.

In fact, there’s no guarantee the microbial ecosystem will automatically return to normal. “It’s one of those assumptions we make today that will seem silly in retrospect,” Dr. Fischbach said. Indeed, some bacteria are adapted for invading and establishing themselves in disrupted ecosystems. A species called Clostridium difficile will sometimes invade a person’s gut after a course of antibiotics. From 2000 to 2009, the number of hospitalized patients in the United States found to have C. difficile more than doubled, to 336,600 from 139,000. Once established, the antibiotic-resistant C. difficile can be hard to eradicate.

Now that scientists are gaining a picture of healthy microbiomes, they are optimistic about restoring devastated ones. “I don’t know that we’re quite on the cusp of being able to do that well at this point. But I think at least the data is starting to argue that these might be possibilities,” said Barbara Methé of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a principal investigator on the microbiome project.

One way to restore microbiomes may be to selectively foster beneficial bacteria. To ward off dangerous skin pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus, for instance, Dr. Segre envisions applying a cream infused with nutrients for harmless skin bacteria to feed on. “It’s promoting the growth of the healthy bacteria that can then overtake the staph,” she said.

Bacterial Transplants

Adding the bacteria directly may also help. Unfortunately, the science of so-called probiotics lags far behind their growth in sales. In 2011, people bought $28 billion of probiotic foods and supplements, according to the research firm EuroMonitor International. But few of them have been tested as rigorously as conventional drugs.

“I think the science has been shoddy and flimsy,” said Dr. Fischbach (who is on the scientific advisory board of Schiff Nutrition International).

Nonetheless, he sees a few promising probiotic treatments. A growing number of doctors are treating C. difficile with fecal transplants: Stool from a healthy donor is delivered like a suppository to an infected patient. The idea is that the good bacteria in the stool establish themselves in the gut and begin to compete with C. difficile. This year, researchers at the University of Alberta reviewed 124 fecal transplants and concluded that the procedure is safe and effective, with 83 percent of patients experiencing immediate improvement as their internal ecosystems were restored.

Dr. Alexander Khoruts of the University of Minnesota and his colleagues want to make fecal transplants standard practice. They can now extract bacteria from stool, “removing the ‘ick’ factor,” as he puts it.

Dr. Khoruts and his colleagues have federal approval to start formal clinical trials on fecal transplants. Eventually, he would like to develop probiotic pills that contain just a few key species required to build the intestinal ecosystem.

“People are starting to take this seriously,” Dr. Fischbach said. “This is a therapy that’s going to help a lot of people.”

Other conditions potentially could be treated by manipulating the microbiome. Scientists have linked obesity, for example, to changes to the gut’s ecosystem. When scientists transfer bacteria from obese mice to lean ones, the lean mice put on weight.

How this happens is still unclear, but some studies suggest that an “obese” microbiome sends signals to the body, changing how cells use sugar for energy and leading the body to store extra fat.

Researchers at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam are running a clinical trial to see if fecal transplants can help treat obesity. They have recruited 45 obese men; some are getting transplants from their own stool, while others get transplants from lean donors. The scientists are finding that the transplants from lean donors are changing how the obese subjects metabolize sugar.

While these initial results are promising, there is no evidence yet that the obese subjects are losing weight. Dr. Fischbach cautions that it may take a while to figure out how to manipulate the microbiome to make people healthy.

And it may take even longer to persuade doctors to think like ecologists.

“The physicians I know really like things that are clear and crisp,” Dr. Fischbach said. “But like any ecosystem, the microbiome is not the kind of place to find simple answers.”

Monday, 25 June 2012

A Confession of Sorts

We all have our obsessions, our quirks, the things that make us different.  For some reason I've always been interested in the makers of things, the producers. I can remember at a high school dance (back in the early'60's) and a local DJ had records to give away and was asking not who sang various songs, but who wrote them, and I was the only person who knew. For me Motown was Holland, Dozier, and Holland, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson not the Supremes or the Jackson Five. I'm that irritating person in the movie theatre who sits through the credits because I want to know who was the writer.  And it obviously extends to my interest in farmers and fishermen, the primary producers of food.

There's a fancy new word being used by marketing types: value chain, and it's an important idea. The people who control food processing and retailing, are consummate middle people, what I like to call margin and volume folks. As long as they can sell at a price higher than what they paid, they're making money, the bigger the margin, and especially the bigger the volume, the more they make. (Don't forget that the biggest corporation in the world Walmart, DOESN'T PRODUCE ANYTHING, it buys in huge volume, and sells for more, period, and has been able to squeeze producers to the bone) The problem with this model is that there's lots of incentive to make the final retail price as cheap as possible to generate sales, but by the time the various middle people have taken their cut, the price received by the primary producer bears no resemblance to its cost of production.  "Value chain" is designed to ensure the producer also gets a fair price (while guaranteeing high quality etc).

Fair pricing for farmers that actually covers costs is certainly at the heart of  supply management (not this again Petrie).  You will continue to read in our favourite newspapers that dairy, egg, and poultry farmers are paid too much.  In fact the price reflects the costs of the most efficient producers, and quota value can't be included in the cost of production.  One other thing you won't be reading in the newspaper, that Canadians actually pay less for fluid milk than consumers in New Zealand, the big dairy exporting country. Milk is more expensive here than in the United States, but don't forget about the widespread use of Monsanto's growth hormone rBGH there to increase production, something that isn't allowed in Canada. In some of the states like Vermont that promote hormone free milk production, prices are comparable or more expensive than in Canada. 

That's the thing about only looking  at the export market or the "world price". It's usually the cheapest price going, but doesn't in any way reflect the possible shortcuts taken by producers, or processors to get it. Don't forget the Chinese dairy scandal when melamine was added to infant formula to increase protein levels. Six children died and hundreds more were made sick.  It's just not a story you'll hear in Canada.

So make sure when you're reading all the vitriol against supply management that you're getting the full story, that you know who wrote the song, not just who sings it.  

Friday, 22 June 2012

Et tu Martha Hall Findlay

For many Martha Hall Findlay was the surprise candidate in the last real Liberal leadership race. Smart and articulate, she spoke convincingly about all of the left of centre, socially progressive issues the Liberals have championed. Now she's written an academic paper  condemning supply management, and saying that Canada would be well rid it. The fact she's a student at the Jack Mintz School for Public Policy at the University of Calgary might explain the subject matter, but I don't think she wrote paper just to get a good mark. According to reports she's thinking of running again for the Liberal leadership and will make the dismantling of supply management a central plank for the Liberals. Wayne Easter will obviously try to convince her otherwise, but it doesn't seem he'll have much luck.

As I've said before supply management is a bit like the designated hitter in baseball. Those that care about it care a lot, but for most Canadians it's just white noise.  I'm a big fan of the Montreal Expos, and very few of the people I vote for in elections actually get elected, so I'm used to being on the wrong side of history. My interest and support for supply management (I've written a lot about it in this blog, there's a search box at the bottom of the page) has developed for two reasons.  One I was reporting on agriculture issues through the 1970's when supply management was created in response to constant financial crises in the dairy and poultry industries. Eugene Whelan is its god father, and for some reason Pierre Trudeau got behind the issue and told the Liberal cabinet, you may not like it but we're going to do it. More importantly I've watched and endlessly reported on how raw economic power in the food industry has shifted from farmers to  increasingly powerful corporate interests in the food processing, wholesale and retail businesses. The fact that the stated goal of Loblaws, Sobeys and Walmart is to give Canadians the cheapest food in the world makes this economic shift look very beneficial to most. The fallout from this:  eroding rural communities, and farm families pushing their children into other occupations, is simply a consequence of this power shift. Prices for grain and oilseeds have recently improved, but for the last fifteen years a third of Canadian farmers lost money every year, and debt levels in the Maritimes are staggering in every commodity but those under supply management. The benefits  (imo) are that unlike in the U.S. and Europe Canadian consumers pay for milk, poultry and eggs once at the supermarket, and not again through subsidies paid by taxpayers, and secondly the distribution of the consumer dollar is fairly spread between farmers, processors and retailers, everyone gets a reasonable cut. Would food processers and retailers like to get more as they do in other commodities? Of course.  And as I wrote yesterday there are environmental and animal welfare issues linked to cheaper dairy and poultry on export markets. Is it a gain to push Canadian farmers to lower the bar in order to compete?

Business/political journalists (a couple of good examples below)  have skillfully presented supply management as some kind of dodgy, overly regulated  racket that benefits very few. I would argue that there are very few professions (from taxi drivers to lobster fishermen to surgeons) that don't have limited entry (the need for licenses that cost money) and don't have a regulated pricing structure that ensures that people make a profit (not allowed in farming apparently).  The business media and politicians can smell blood when it comes to  killing off supply management, and unfortunately Martha Hall Findlay  will immensely help their cause.


John Ivison: Trans-Pacific Partnership and low political costs mean supply management’s days are numbered

As Martha Hall Findlay reeled off the reasons why Canada’s supply management system should be dismantled, you could almost hear time’s winged chariot changing gears in the background. The former Liberal MP’s research paper, which landed in the week the Harper government joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, has the potential to change everything.

Written for Jack Mintz’s School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, it is the latest to lay out the irrefutable case for consigning the supply management of dairy, poultry and eggs to history.

Crucially though, it is the first to address the question of political will — or more accurately, political won’t. Her analysis suggests that there are only 13 ridings in Canada with more than 300 dairy farms — eight in Quebec and five in Ontario.

Eight of them are Conservative, most with 10,000 vote pluralities. Her conclusion is that even if Conservatives had made clear their intent to end supply management, and all those seats had been lost in 2011, the Tories would still have won a majority government.

She suggested even that scenario was unlikely, since it discounts the prospect of people actually voting in support of dismantling supply management.

Her analysis of Statistics Canada’s agricultural census division suggests that in every single riding in question, there are far more non-dairy farmers, who would benefit from ending supply management through gains in exports.

There are a mere 12,746 dairy farms in Canada (down from 145,000 in 1970 and 30,000 in 1996). This compares to 210,000 beef, pork and grain farms dependent on international trade.

The reason so many MPs are of the opinion that nothing can be done is that they are constantly bombarded with messages from the vocal dairy lobby, richly funded by the proceeds of the higher milk prices all Canadian consumers pay. No-one wants to be accused of killing the family farm, even though the numbers suggest there has already been a winnowing of small farmers.

Ms. Hall Findlay urged export-oriented farmers to mobilize themselves in support of reform. But the real silent majority is the millions of consumers who pay more than they should for dairy and poultry.

The study suggested a family that buys an average of three bags of milk a week (four litres) is paying up to $300 more than in the United States — and that doesn’t include higher prices for cheese, butter and eggs.

“The worst part is that it’s not just taxpayers, it’s regressive. Lower income families are paying a higher percentage of their income for basic nutrition.

“From a political perspective, that alone should be worth far more than the whole variety of family tax credits that have been offered in recent years to encourage voters,” she said.

The paper did not delve into the ticklish issue of how to compensate dairy farmers for their the loss of value of their production quota — currently, each cow is valued at $28,000. But Ms. Hall Findlay did point to the experience of Australia, which funded transition payments by putting a levy on retail milk sales for eight years. She noted that, while the levy kept dairy prices higher than international free market prices, they were lower than they had been under supply management.

The timing is impeccable. Canada has just been invited into the Trans-Pacific Partnership and top of the list of demands from existing members like the U.S., New Zealand and Australia is the opening of Canada’s supply managed sectors.

The Conservatives hope they can pacify other TPP members by opening up some more tariff free quota, as they are doing with the European Union in their free trade negotiations. But, as the Hall Findlay paper notes, Europe is the only major trading bloc with a higher producer subsidy equivalent than Canada (as a percentage of gross farm receipts, the EU’s PSE is 27%, Canada’s is 18%, the U.S. is 10%, China is 9%, Australia is 6% and NZ is 1%). The quota solution just won’t wash with the TPP members, so the Harper government is going to have go further. Why not make a virtue of a necessity by courting the people who would gain from the introduction of free trade in dairy and poultry?

That is certainly Ms. Hall Findlay’s intention. She lost her Toronto seat at the last election but has expressed an interest in running for the Liberal leadership again (she ran in 2006). She said if she won, she would make the dismantling of supply management Liberal policy.

But that day will be a long time coming, as long as the Liberal Party is dominated by the Wayne Easters of the world. The Liberal trade critic didn’t miss a beat after the TPP announcement landed this week, demanding the government continue to protect dairy and poultry farmers.

Ms. Hall Findlay has made what Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby would call a “brave decision” — namely, one that risks losing votes. Regardless, it will raise her candidacy in the estimation of those Liberals looking for some fresh thinking and political integrity.

It’s long been known that supply management is a racket — an indefensible, anti-competitive cartel. Politicians of all parties have known it, condemned it in private and then voted unanimously in support, as they did in November 2005.

But the tide just turned. The combination of entry to the TPP and evidence that change can come at minimal political cost suggests that supply management’s days are numbered.

Mr. Mintz, the renowned tax and fiscal specialist, said he sees the current situation as a “milestone” in Canadian history, similar to the signing of the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement.

“We are at a very important juncture. Do we want to be a major trading country in emerging markets, or, are we like a turtle pulling its head and feet back into its shell?” he asked. This government has already indicated it has ambitions to bolster Canada’s trade in Asia through new alliances.

Supply management is the price of admission.


Jeffery Simpson

Political hell hath no fury like dairy farmers aroused

If you think the theatre of 100,000 people in the streets every night in Quebec, coupled with pot-banging and endless (largely sympathetic) media coverage, was over the top, wait until any federal government threatens supply management.
Political hell hath no fury like dairy farmers aroused. They showed it four decades ago when they painted slogans on barn roofs across Quebec, descended on Ottawa, dumped milk over the head of agriculture minister Eugene Whelan and bullied the federal Liberal government into the racket that is supply management.
Dairy and poultry producers are found in many places across Canada, but their heartland is rural Quebec and Ontario. Ever since these farmers got supply management – an attempt to balance domestic supplies and demand, with small quotas for imports and no thought of exports – they have defended it with every available tool.
How vise-like is their grip? A few years ago, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion instructing Canadian negotiators at international trade talks not to yield an inch of supply management’s protections, including astronomically high tariffs on imports. Imagine, a unanimous motion from a body whose members would have trouble agreeing that today is Friday.
Urban MPs, whose constituents – especially low-income ones – are hosed by supply-management’s high prices, and Western Canadian Conservative MPs, whose farming constituents play on the world stage, are rendered mute by their rural colleagues and by party leaders frightened of the supply-management lobby.
So no chink exists in the political armour defending supply management, either in Ottawa or at the provincial level. In Quebec, especially, the support is ubiquitous, in part because the producers are in a union – l’Union des producteurs agricoles du Québec – that is arguably the most powerful lobby group in Canada, along with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Any assault on supply management would be seen as an assault on Quebec, and we know what emotional wallop that punch brings.
The only pressure to change supply management has come from outside the country. The system has been regularly pilloried by Canada’s trading partners, who rightly consider it highly protectionist. At various international trade negotiations, Canada has been put under pressure to change the system. All that did was change quotas into sky-high tariffs and open up the protected market a little bit to more imports.
At those meetings, lobbyists for supply management always swarm the Canadian negotiating team. Every meeting is monitored, every statement parsed, every opportunity to presents the farmers’ case exploited. And every government – Liberal or Conservative – has therefore entered negotiations singing the praises of worldwide free trade while singing another hymn to the virtues of protectionism for supply management.
Now, Canada has been allowed – after furious lobbying with the Americans – into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a move deemed unlikely in this space last week) with the Prime Minister singing the songs of his predecessors. We need more free trade, sang Stephen Harper, and the TPP is one way to get at the burgeoning markets of Asia. But, he sang, we will protect supply management.
There are those who believe Mr. Harper actually wants to use the TPP to destroy supply management or at least to weaken it. As a free trader himself, he must see the absurdity of the protectionist racket that is supply management. But as a prime minister, he must also see the perils of arousing Quebec (and his own political base in rural Ontario).
So, chances are, he will try to use the TPP – and the free-trade deal with Europe – as a way of whittling away at the system.
Our friends in New Zealand and Australia didn’t favour Canada joining the TPP because they knew Canada would obstruct progress on free trade in agriculture. Elements of the U.S. government didn’t favour Canada’s entry either, for reasons of supply management and other protectionist Canadian policies. It took the heaviest of lobbying by Mr. Harper and his staff to get Canada a seat at the table.
Having secured that seat, Canada will find supply management changes demanded by at least some of the other players. As usual, Canada will use every tactic to delay, frustrate and block any changes in order to keep dairy and poultry farmers off the streets of Montreal and Ottawa.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

That Didn't Take Long

Here we go (see yesterday's post)


Canada’s dairy, poultry markets prized in Pacific trade deal

The United States, Australia and New Zealand are demanding unfettered access to Canada’s highly protected dairy and poultry markets a day after inviting Ottawa to join them in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.
Their demands to tear down agricultural trade barriers mean Canada’s supply management system will be in the cross hairs in the TPP talks.
“For Australia, it’s about market access. We have farmers who are very keen – as does New Zealand – to have access, to have the removal of barriers and tariffs,” Louise Hand, Australia’s High Commissioner to Canada, said in an interview on Wednesday. “I guess Australia, like the others, needed to be assured that that was where Canada was coming from.”
The U.S. dairy industry is similarly salivating at the prospect of securing access to the closed Canadian market – which sustains nearly 15,000 farmers and keeps prices artificially high.
“All Canadian trade barriers against U.S. dairy products must be eliminated,” the U.S. Dairy Export Council and the National Milk Producers Federation said in a statement as they backed Canada’s bid for entry as a way to re-open the issue.
The powerful dairy industry quickly served notice to the Obama administration that it won’t back any TPP pact without “full market access for U.S. dairy products in the Canadian market,” said Tom Suber, president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Canada’s dairy and chicken farmers are equally determined to preserve the tariff wall and controls on production that shelter the industry from global competition.
The supply management system also requires Canadian consumers to pay an extra $3-billion a year for milk, cheese, eggs and chicken.
But Canada has quietly suggested to TPP countries that any concessions it makes on supply management in the Canada-European Union trade negotiations could become a model for its offer to the other TPP countries, which include the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Brunei, Chile and Peru. Mexico, like Canada, was invited to join this week.
While Ottawa has been tight lipped on the details, Matthias Brinkman, the EU’s ambassador to Canada, briefed reporters in April on the negotiations. Rather than abandoning supply management, he said, both sides are aiming to adjust quotas, with a quid pro quo for certain products, such as allowing more European cheese imports in exchange for increased beef exports.
Canadian tariffs on dairy products, which are up to 315 per cent, could be cut by 30-50 per cent and still be “prohibitive,” Mr. Curtis pointed out.
Trade Minister Ed Fast told The Globe in an interview on Wednesday that Canada made no specific commitments to get into the talks, nor has it ruled anything out.
“We’ve made two things very clear: We’re prepared to discuss all issues at the negotiating table,” he said. “And we’ve also made commitments to our farmers. In all of our previous trade negotiations, right from NAFTA on, we’ve been able to satisfactorily resolve these issues and come up with trade agreements that really serve the interests of both sides.”
Australia, New Zealand and the United States were the last three of the nine original TPP members to approve Canada’s entry to the talks. The TPP members were aiming to conclude an agreement this year, but that appears optimistic now.
“Our farmers don’t want barriers on any sector, but this is obviously a negotiation,” Ms. Hand said. The “starting point” is that Canada is committed to “an ambitious outcome” that includes “the elimination of barriers to trade in goods and services,” she added.
Trade experts, and even other TPP countries, acknowledge that Canada’s protectionist supply management system is unlikely to disappear overnight.
But to get to the TPP table, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has put supply management in play. And that will almost certainly mean significant concessions, including allowing more foreign products into a system keeps virtually all imports out.
“Tariff and subsidy elimination means dairy farmers in both Canada and the U.S. will have to face genuine world signals, which neither of them do now,” insisted an official of one TPP country, who declined to be named.
The pressure is not just from abroad. Canadian food makers such as McCain Foods Ltd. and Saputo Inc. want to sell to the Asian market, but can’t buy dairy ingredients here at competitive prices.
“I suspect there will be the beginning of movement on the supply management question – not just because of foreign pressure, but because our own processors are finding it too expensive to manufacture food,” said John Curtis, the former chief economist at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and now an adjunct professor at Queen’s University. “That’s where the real economic pressures are.”
Other experts say Ottawa should be much more ambitious at the talks, and in other trade negotiations. In an upcoming C.D. Howe Institute paper, former Canadian trade negotiator Michael Hart urges Ottawa to phase out supply management unilaterally over 10 years.
“It’s time to be a little braver,” said Mr. Hart, a professor at Carleton University’s Norman Patterson School of International Affairs. “Mr. Harper wants Canada to be a trading nation. Okay, Mr. Harper: just do it.”


 Gary Mason

Trade talks ain’t what they used to be (open)

Once upon a time, major international trade pacts were the source of controversy and great debate in Canada.
The North American Free Trade Agreement ignited a national uprising. On Parliament Hill, opposition parties railed against the accord’s potential to make Canada the 51st state of the U.S. It made national figures out of anti-NAFTA crusaders Mel Hurtig and Maude Barlow.Those were the days.
For a few years now, Canada has been negotiating a free-trade agreement with Europe that is absolutely massive in scope. Ultimately, it could affect everything from health care to the environment. Yet, while the Council of Canadians and a few other groups have been sounding the alarm on the impact this deal could have on the country, theirs have been mostly voices in the wilderness.
Trade talks with the EU have gained little traction nationally. It would seem Canadians will learn what we’ve been signed up for once the deal is announced.
Which brings us to this week’s news that Canada has been allowed provisional entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations – a trade deal much bigger in scale than NAFTA. Along with the United States, Mexico and eight other Pacific countries, the economic partnership would cover a region of 658-million people with a combined GDP of more than $20-trillion. You’ll be hearing those figures a lot in coming months.
And that may be about all.
In fact, negotiations have been going on for more than two years. Canada and Mexico are late entrants. Until now, there has been little information released about what the talks entail. Secrecy has been the trademark of the discussions and will no doubt continue to be.
There has, however, been one leak: a chapter of the proposed agreement involving investment. The Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Public Citizen has been able to verify the text as authentic.
Noteworthy in the draft is the concern that the negotiations are occurring without any oversight by the media or elected officials. This takes on a more troubling hue when you consider that the document indicates negotiators have already agreed on some fairly controversial measures, in particular ones around the rights and privileges of foreign corporations.
According to Public Citizen, the trade deal would limit the extent to which signatory countries could regulate foreign firms operating within their boundaries, effectively giving them greater freedoms than domestic firms.
It also reveals that all of the countries except Australia have agreed to terms around the operation of foreign tribunals, which would arbitrate disputes. The tribunals would be staffed by private-sector lawyers who would rotate between acting as judges and acting as advocates for the investors who might be suing a particular government over a TPP-related matter. Talk about a potential conflict of interest.
And these are just a few of the more contentious issues discussed in the leaked draft. There are others. Lots of them. And remember, this is just one chapter of what we can only assume are several.
Of course, this doesn’t make any proposed deal bad. There’s little question that such a pact has tremendous upside for Canada. If Japan joins the negotiations – and China and India down the road – the potential of this Pacific partnership becomes even greater.
But the clandestine nature of the talks is concerning. As are reports that Canada and Mexico – as part of the terms of their prospective entry into the club this week – were told they could not reopen any parts of the deal that had already been agreed upon by the original nine member countries. And that we might have abided to that stipulation without even seeing the existing draft document. (Although that seems beyond belief.)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Canada has not agreed to any specific measures. But we can only guess what that means. Just as we can only guess what such a trade agreement would ultimately do to the business life of this country and everything that flows from it.
Back in the day, the thought of that would have caused a real commotion in this country. Maybe no longer.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

If It Walks Like a Duck....

If the economy is the cornerstone of Stephen Harper's political offerings, then trade is its bedrock.  There are fewer industrialized countries Canada isn't in free trade negotiations with than ones that it is.  This week Canada slipped into what could be the biggest trade deal of all, the Trans Pacific Partnership. Nine countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam are  in the partnership. They’ve now been joined by Mexico and Canada, and soon Japan. I say slipped in because Canada is coming late to the party.  It has to accept whatever has already been agreed to before seeing the text, and won't have the veto powers the original partners enjoy.

It's why Canada is late that's both interesting and worrying for the Maritimes. Two of the original partners, the United States and New Zealand, are aggressive dairy trading countries who've been trying for decades to knock down Canada's import controls on dairy, eggs, and poultry. These import controls underpin something we've been hearing a lot about this week, supply management.  Essentially it's a highly regulated marketing system that limits production to Canadian demand, but assures farmers fair prices.  Canada stays out of other countries markets, but protects its own. Business friendly media like the Globe and Mail say giving up supply management to get this trade deal is just too good to pass up:  "However, it is clear that agricultural protectionism is simply no match for the benefits of trade liberalization. Canada’s traditional export markets – the U.S. and Europe – are stagnant, while East Asian and Latin American economies are booming." The unanswered question is, did Canada agree to give up supply management in return for a seat at the table? The government says it's been a long time supporter of supply management. That may be true, but it doesn't offer any assurances that the government didn't  make the same calculations as the Globe and Mail: give up import controls, Canadians get cheaper food, Canada becomes a player in a huge free trade zone. Canada was kept out of the talks because of supply management. Now it's in. If it walks like a duck.....

Here's the rub for this region. Farmers here are generally uncompetitive because of higher transportation costs getting goods to the big consumer markets, and higher input costs. The supply managed industries at least have kept farmers in the game, and its loss would have a relatively bigger impact here, second only to Quebec with its massive dairy sector. (Stephen Harper won an election without Quebec already, and probably feels he can do it again.)

Let's look a little deeper. Canadian consumers might well say they'd welcome cheaper dairy, eggs and poultry.  There's a reason the United States and New Zealand offer cheaper dairy products on export markets. U.S. farmers are allowed to inject their cows with a hormone that forces cows to produce more milk. So far rBGH is banned in Canada. There are questions about its impact on human health, but there is clear evidence that cows don't live as long or as well being pushed beyond their normal lactation levels.  New Zealand also is paying a price for cheap milk. If you google "dirty dairying" you'll fund many references to polluted rivers. http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/7042151/Dirty-dairying-laid-bare  is a story from this past month, and there are many more. So yes there is cheaper milk out there, but at what cost?

There will be even bigger questions in the race for the cheapest milk in the future.  Get ready for UHT milk. It's a process that allows unrefrigerated milk to be sold for up to nine months after processing.  That would allow milk from anywhere in the world to end up on shelves here.

I'm not saying that Canadians should be prepared to pay any price to keep dairy farmers here in business. I am saying that supply management is one of the few marketing systems where the consumers dollar is fairly split between producers, processors and retailers. It allows Maritime farmers to milk 60 to 80 cows, rather than several hundred in the U.S., to get the same income. It allows farmers to plan for the future, protect the environment, and have something of value to pass on to children. 

Canada has protected supply management in earlier trade deals, like Nafta and the WTO, but Canada was at the table from the get-go. This time it's late to the game, and coming in a as a junior partner.  This means  Canada is negotiating from weakness and can be pushed around, and countries like New Zealand and the United States have been waiting a long time to put a stake through the heart of supply management.  The government and editorial writers at the Globe and Mail might just let them succeed.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

What Do We Really Know

The first time I heard Gary Taubes was on a CBC radio interview (that happens a lot). He had very provocative and interesting things to say about diets and heart disease, essentially that most of what we've taken as gospel about fats, cholesterol, losing weight, and so on was based on meager at least, and faulty at worst, research.  I had to download the podcast and listen to it a few more times just to make sure I got it right. As I've written before about butter, I've generally taken the approach that my genetic heritage (southern European and Scottish) was more informative about what I should be eating than some diet fad (good scotch, fish and garlic).  Now Taubes has taken on another motherhood issue and turned it on its head: salt. The man is definitely worth reading or listening to. And to add one more positive thing on this beautiful day, a story about a grass grown easily in the Maritimes that could be another excellent crop for a biomass industry (using trees and crops to produce energy for space heating and electricity).


Salt, We Misjudged You

    June 2, 2012

Oakland, Calif.

THE first time I questioned the conventional wisdom on the nature of a healthy diet, I was in my salad days, almost 40 years ago, and the subject was salt. Researchers were claiming that salt supplementation was unnecessary after strenuous exercise, and this advice was being passed on by health reporters. All I knew was that I had played high school football in suburban Maryland, sweating profusely through double sessions in the swamplike 90-degree days of August. Without salt pills, I couldn’t make it through a two-hour practice; I couldn’t walk across the parking lot afterward without cramping.

While sports nutritionists have since come around to recommend that we should indeed replenish salt when we sweat it out in physical activity, the message that we should avoid salt at all other times remains strong. Salt consumption is said to raise blood pressure, cause hypertension and increase the risk of premature death. This is why the Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines still consider salt Public Enemy No. 1, coming before fats, sugars and alcohol. It’s why the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that reducing salt consumption is as critical to long-term health as quitting cigarettes.

And yet, this eat-less-salt argument has been surprisingly controversial — and difficult to defend. Not because the food industry opposes it, but because the actual evidence to support it has always been so weak.

When I spent the better part of a year researching the state of the salt science back in 1998 — already a quarter century into the eat-less-salt recommendations — journal editors and public health administrators were still remarkably candid in their assessment of how flimsy the evidence was implicating salt as the cause of hypertension.

“You can say without any shadow of a doubt,” as I was told then by Drummond Rennie, an editor for The Journal of the American Medical Association, that the authorities pushing the eat-less-salt message had “made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts.”

While, back then, the evidence merely failed to demonstrate that salt was harmful, the evidence from studies published over the past two years actually suggests that restricting how much salt we eat can increase our likelihood of dying prematurely. Put simply, the possibility has been raised that if we were to eat as little salt as the U.S.D.A. and the C.D.C. recommend, we’d be harming rather than helping ourselves.

WHY have we been told that salt is so deadly? Well, the advice has always sounded reasonable. It has what nutritionists like to call “biological plausibility.” Eat more salt and your body retains water to maintain a stable concentration of sodium in your blood. This is why eating salty food tends to make us thirsty: we drink more; we retain water. The result can be a temporary increase in blood pressure, which will persist until our kidneys eliminate both salt and water.

The scientific question is whether this temporary phenomenon translates to chronic problems: if we eat too much salt for years, does it raise our blood pressure, cause hypertension, then strokes, and then kill us prematurely? It makes sense, but it’s only a hypothesis. The reason scientists do experiments is to find out if hypotheses are true.

In 1972, when the National Institutes of Health introduced the National High Blood Pressure Education Program to help prevent hypertension, no meaningful experiments had yet been done. The best evidence on the connection between salt and hypertension came from two pieces of research. One was the observation that populations that ate little salt had virtually no hypertension. But those populations didn’t eat a lot of things — sugar, for instance — and any one of those could have been the causal factor. The second was a strain of “salt-sensitive” rats that reliably developed hypertension on a high-salt diet. The catch was that “high salt” to these rats was 60 times more than what the average American consumes.

Still, the program was founded to help prevent hypertension, and prevention programs require preventive measures to recommend. Eating less salt seemed to be the only available option at the time, short of losing weight. Although researchers quietly acknowledged that the data were “inconclusive and contradictory” or “inconsistent and contradictory” — two quotes from the cardiologist Jeremiah Stamler, a leading proponent of the eat-less-salt campaign, in 1967 and 1981 — publicly, the link between salt and blood pressure was upgraded from hypothesis to fact.

In the years since, the N.I.H. has spent enormous sums of money on studies to test the hypothesis, and those studies have singularly failed to make the evidence any more conclusive. Instead, the organizations advocating salt restriction today — the U.S.D.A., the Institute of Medicine, the C.D.C. and the N.I.H. — all essentially rely on the results from a 30-day trial of salt, the 2001 DASH-Sodium study. It suggested that eating significantly less salt would modestly lower blood pressure; it said nothing about whether this would reduce hypertension, prevent heart disease or lengthen life.

While influential, that trial was just one of many. When researchers have looked at all the relevant trials and tried to make sense of them, they’ve continued to support Dr. Stamler’s “inconsistent and contradictory” assessment. Last year, two such “meta-analyses” were published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international nonprofit organization founded to conduct unbiased reviews of medical evidence. The first of the two reviews concluded that cutting back “the amount of salt eaten reduces blood pressure, but there is insufficient evidence to confirm the predicted reductions in people dying prematurely or suffering cardiovascular disease.” The second concluded that “we do not know if low salt diets improve or worsen health outcomes.”

The idea that eating less salt can worsen health outcomes may sound bizarre, but it also has biological plausibility and is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, too. A 1972 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the less salt people ate, the higher their levels of a substance secreted by the kidneys, called renin, which set off a physiological cascade of events that seemed to end with an increased risk of heart disease. In this scenario: eat less salt, secrete more renin, get heart disease, die prematurely.

With nearly everyone focused on the supposed benefits of salt restriction, little research was done to look at the potential dangers. But four years ago, Italian researchers began publishing the results from a series of clinical trials, all of which reported that, among patients with heart failure, reducing salt consumption increased the risk of death.

Those trials have been followed by a slew of studies suggesting that reducing sodium to anything like what government policy refers to as a “safe upper limit” is likely to do more harm than good. These covered some 100,000 people in more than 30 countries and showed that salt consumption is remarkably stable among populations over time. In the United States, for instance, it has remained constant for the last 50 years, despite 40 years of the eat-less-salt message. The average salt intake in these populations — what could be called the normal salt intake — was one and a half teaspoons a day, almost 50 percent above what federal agencies consider a safe upper limit for healthy Americans under 50, and more than double what the policy advises for those who aren’t so young or healthy. This consistency, between populations and over time, suggests that how much salt we eat is determined by physiological demands, not diet choices.

One could still argue that all these people should reduce their salt intake to prevent hypertension, except for the fact that four of these studies — involving Type 1 diabetics, Type 2 diabetics, healthy Europeans and patients with chronic heart failure — reported that the people eating salt at the lower limit of normal were more likely to have heart disease than those eating smack in the middle of the normal range. Effectively what the 1972 paper would have predicted.

Proponents of the eat-less-salt campaign tend to deal with this contradictory evidence by implying that anyone raising it is a shill for the food industry and doesn’t care about saving lives. An N.I.H. administrator told me back in 1998 that to publicly question the science on salt was to play into the hands of the industry. “As long as there are things in the media that say the salt controversy continues,” he said, “they win.”

When several agencies, including the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, held a hearing last November to discuss how to go about getting Americans to eat less salt (as opposed to whether or not we should eat less salt), these proponents argued that the latest reports suggesting damage from lower-salt diets should simply be ignored. Lawrence Appel, an epidemiologist and a co-author of the DASH-Sodium trial, said “there is nothing really new.” According to the cardiologist Graham MacGregor, who has been promoting low-salt diets since the 1980s, the studies were no more than “a minor irritation that causes us a bit of aggravation.”

This attitude that studies that go against prevailing beliefs should be ignored on the basis that, well, they go against prevailing beliefs, has been the norm for the anti-salt campaign for decades. Maybe now the prevailing beliefs should be changed. The British scientist and educator Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog for his advocacy of evolution, may have put it best back in 1860. “My business,” he wrote, “is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations.”


Elephant grass trumpeted

An Ontario company wants to help turn elephant grass into electrons at a biomass plant proposed for Hantsport.

Pro Farm Energy Inc. is looking to lease agricultural land in Digby, Kings, Annapolis, Hants, Colchester, Pictou, Cumberland, Lunenburg and Halifax counties where it can grow Miscanthus giganteus.

The crop would feed a 10-megawatt power plant developed by Minas Basin Pulp and Power Co. Ltd.

“It’s relatively new to North America,” Mark Thiessen, who heads Pro Farm, said Wednesday.

“We’re going to be using thousands of acres of land and growing it for this power plant.”

Elephant grass looks somewhat like bamboo, said John Woods, vice-president of energy development at Minas Basin Pulp and Power.

“There are many features of the Miscanthus that other biomass can’t offer,” Woods said. “So we think that having this plus traditional biomass is an intriguing option for us.”

The plant could be burned in conjunction with wood, he said.

“It’s quite conceivable that the majority of the fuel would be Miscanthus.”

Nova Scotia and South America are among the two best places in the world to grow the plant, Woods said.

“I personally believe that this thing could be an ultimate exporter of biofuel for Europe because we’re close to that market,” he said. “If Minas can help grow that industry, it would be great to be part of history.”

Miscanthus giganteus can grow up to about four metres in height.

“It’s planted once and it’s harvested for over 20 years,” Thiessen said. “We cut and bale it and burn it and turn a spinny thing and make power.”

The plant’s origins are in Asia, he said. “It’s been used to fuel power plants in the U.K. for years.”

Pro Farm is hoping to start planting the Miscanthus giganteus here next year.

“The power plant is scheduled to open in a couple of years,” Thiessen said of the project that’s estimated to cost in excess of $50 million.

“We’re going to go from field to electron.”

The plan is to feed the electricity to Nova Scotia Power Inc.’s grid, Thiessen said.

“It’s the most renewable energy there is, other than tidal. It’s carbon neutral.”

Nova Scotia Power spokesman David Rodenhiser confirmed Wednesday that the electrical utility does have a 10-megawatt power purchase agreement with Minas Basin Pulp and Power.

Pro Farm is looking to sign 20-year land leases in a 150-kilometre radius of Hantsport.

“We’re offering (consumer price index) on the land rental rates,” Thiessen said.

“And we’re paying the land owners three years up-front if we execute a lease with them. It’s something that’s not very standard for agriculture, so it’s really new and it could be considered exciting.”

Pro Farm already grows Miscanthus giganteus in Leamington, Ont., to burn as fuel to heat greenhouses.

“This is where the crop has been commercialized in North America. So we’re going to be setting up a business in Nova Scotia and planting this crop out there,” Thiessen said. “And we’re going to use the Leamington facilities to supply the mother stock of seed or rhizomes in this case.”

The plants will be allowed to stand in fields over winter, he said.

“We let it stand and dry down,” Thiessen said. “So it actually gets down to below 18 per cent moisture, which makes it a good fuel. And it leaches all the alkali nutrients and water back down to the rhizome root base.”

The plant is not invasive, he said.

“It’s kind of a freak of nature. It doesn’t develop seeds that are viable. So it cannot spread by seed.”

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Slowly Coming to Appreciate Slow Food

It was the word convivium that always made me suspicious, uneasy. It reeked of elitism, of secret knowledge and exclusivity.  I learned this week that it comes from convivial (fond of feasting, drinking, and merry company according to one dictionary), so that makes some sense. I decided to push past this concern (it's just a word after all) and went to listen to Chef Michael Howell who was on PEI this week. He's been the face of Slow Food in Nova Scotia for many years. I've still got some niggling concerns, but was very impressed with Howell, and what he had to say.

The history of Slow Food is inspiring.  It's 1986. Carlo Petrini , a Marxist journalist from  Langhe district of Piedmont, Italy  becomes aware of a McDonalds being built.  He immediately sets out to create a philosphy about food that's now become a world-wide movement. It's basic values:

"Good, Clean and Fair

Slow Food's approach to agriculture, food production and gastronomy is based on a concept of food quality defined by three interconnected principles:

GOOD a fresh and flavorsome seasonal diet that satisfies the senses and is part of our local culture;

CLEAN food production and consumption that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health;

FAIR accessible prices for consumers and fair conditions and pay for small-scale producers."

So it's the original local food movement, and anyone who's been reading this blog knows, I think all of these principles are very important.  I've been trying to understand why I was uncomfortable at times at this week's meeting of very well meaning "foodies", chefs, and at least one producer, to re-start a Slow Food  "you know what" on PEI.  Here goes (and I'm not expecting much agreement here). It has to do with the definition of "small-scale producers". In the last couple of posts I've talked about my admiration and respect for small organic farms, but that they're motivated more by values and lifestyle. I'm not convinced that their scale (or what consumers are prepared to pay) can make these enterprises financially successful. People will do them until their back breaks down, or the credit union won't maintain their overdraft.  This isn't an argument not to do it (I did it myself through the 1970's and it taught me a lot about life and farming), but as a society we tend to treat these farmers like artists: we like to have them around, enjoy their output from time to time, but  we're not really prepared to ensure that they live anything beyond a very marginal existence.  So if we're to have a functioning economy on PEI we have to end the hostility towards larger commercial farming operations. This isn't to excuse fishkills or nitrates, or to say they're the cost of doing business. Slowly there's recognition and action on all these issues (too slowly I agree), but as consumers we're all complicit in environmental degradation of some kind whether its contamination from the solvents used to make computer chips, or the gasoline in our cars. The pollution may not be next door,  but it's next door to someone. 

So if the Slow Food movement convinces consumers to think harder about where their food comes from, and to properly pay for fresh food grown locally,  and if farmers understand and respond to  this growing appreciation,  I'll do everything I can to support it. If it becomes a bully pulpit to whine and complain every time a farmer has the sprayer in the field,  or traffic has to slow down because there's a tractor moving from field to field (I've heard both this week),  then I'll keep thinking.

Monday, 4 June 2012

More on Big vs Small

I am full of respect for the many people who think about food beyond what's on sale at the Superstore (like those who read this blog).  That's why I wanted to expand a bit on some thoughts/ideas from the last post, principally the ability of small farms to form the basis of a functioning provincial economy. I wish they could,  but  we don't live in Disneyland, and farming and the food business in a globalized market  is brutally tough.

Here's perhaps the most important question:  if large farms have lost so much money over the last decade (which they have), and some are a risk to the environment as well, how can that good for the province?  Here's where the "magic" (pitfall might be a better word) of debt and equity play their part.  Large commercial farms contribute a lot to the provincial economy regardless (often in spite of) whether they make a profit. Banks provide large lines of credit based on the "equity" a farmer has (the value of the farm and assets minus loans and liabilities), and that allows farmers to buy fuel,  fix tractors, hire workers, buy seed, fertilizer and pesticides, get the vet in when animals are sick and so on. All these industries, services and people benefit from the farms' economic activity, and they in turn pay salaries, buy goods and services, etc.  Economists talk about the velocity of money, the ability of one dollar to go through many hands, and be the basis of much more than a dollar's worth of  activity. And along that economic chain, the provincial government gets a share that then can be used for health and education. This isn't to say that small farms don't contribute, but their equity just doesn't allow enough money to get up in the air every Spring to do much for the province. Now I'm not saying this is a system that makes much sense, but it's the economic world we live in.

It's also why when provincial politicians say that farming, fishing, and tourism are the basis of PEI's economy, they're actually telling the truth. Each province has certain primary industries (farming, fishing, oil-gas, forestry, autos)  that other goods and services industries  develop around. These are PEI's (along with huge dollops of federal cash, another story). There are many economists who  argue that Canada has moved to a "knowledge and services" economy,  beyond "hewers of wood, and drawers of water" (love that word hewers). There are certainly industries here and elsewhere in Canada that no one had ever thought of two decades ago  (RIM anyone), and many contribute to our economic well being. They don't appear to be  the bedrock we all had hoped for (RIM anyone), and certainly here on the "million acre farm" we've got to hope that people who get their hands dirty are making some money too.