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Agriculture platforms short on content, short even on rhetoric

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Friday, June 11, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- It was quite a faux pas for the Leader of the Opposition. While on the campaign trail in Saskatoon, in Canada's agricultural heartland, Steven Harper refused to answer a reporter's question about agriculture, saying he was not there to talk about his farm policies. The puzzled reporter wondered how this might look to prairie farmers. Harper claimed he didn't need to be concerned since prairie farmers were solidly behind him anyway.

There may be another reason the Conservative leader didn't want to talk agriculture. This can be found in the official party platform, displayed on the Conservative's website. Or, rather, it can't be found there, because the only mention of agriculture in the entire platform is a one-line promise to "support Canada's farmers, fishers, and forestry workers". Another part of the website contains a list of "issues". The "issue" of agriculture is explained like this: "The Conservative Party will fight for farmers. We will protect farmers against conditions outside their control and vigorously defend them in international trade negotiations."

Not exactly enough to fill a book. But, speaking of books, what does the Liberal Red Book say about agriculture? Rather than describe its plans for agriculture, the Liberal's official platform lists Liberal accomplishments. It cites the aid packages for drought, BSE and avian influenza, and SAYS the government has "worked steadily" to get the American and other borders open to Canadian beef. This brief paragraph is all the Liberal's 58-page platform has to say about agriculture, save for a promise in another section to "strengthen the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration". (Granted, the Liberals can run on their recent record.)

Oddly enough, the party least likely to get much support in rural western Canada has the most to say about agriculture. The New Democratic Party devotes two full pages of its 66-page party platform to agriculture. The NDP takes swings at NAFTA, claiming it is not working for agriculture and other industries. It promises to protect the Canadian Wheat Board and Canada's supply managed sectors, enhance safety nets, increase farm support to counter American and European subsidies, ban GM wheat and increase value-added processing for farm products.

All this is stuff most farmers would agree with, but the NDP has been unable to make substantial gains in rural seats in western Canada in recent elections.

The Conservative silence on agriculture is disturbing. Most western farmers know little about what the party would do for agriculture, yet may be poised to vote for it. The only specific Conservative policy commonly known is the party's resolve to eliminate the CWB by ending single desk selling.

The silence is understandable though. The awful problem the Conservatives face is rooted in their ideology. Conservatives believe that freeing the marketplace to do its job is the best way to operate an economy. For agriculture, this means more trade agreements and less government subsidies. It means telling farmers to adapt or perish. It means increased farm size and ever-greater reliance on technology. Now, don't get me wrong. A Conservative government with seats in rural areas would not likely abandon safety nets or cut the emergency aid to farmers. A Conservative government would probably treat agriculture much like Paul Martin has: hand over some cash and natter away at the U.S.

The only problem with this is that we've tried it all before and it doesn't work. Despite years of blaming European and American farm subsidies, despite years of attempting to negotiate world trade deals, despite vast monies poured into value-added enterprises and dumped into fertilizers, chemicals, new machinery, improved seeds and every other kind of technological fix, the farm crisis continues. Farms survive because of one thing only: off-farm work.

And lest Canadian farmers feel bad, their well-endowed American counterparts are really very little better off. But, compared to farmers in India, Korea, Russia and Afghanistan, Canadian and American farmers live in luxury's lap. Those folks are just getting started down the road of rural depopulation, increased mechanization and competition from subsidized foreign producers. In only a few decades, they should have farm economies as good as ours, with just as many farmers on the land!

The problem for the Conservatives is that, where farming is concerned, their ideology just doesn't work. Not only in Canada, mind you, but the world over. Or does it?

Agriculture fuels a huge part of the economy, quite literally. Because farmers all over the world don't make an adequate living, consumers in the rich parts of the world can have cheap and abundant food. Cheap food allows people large amounts of leisure time, and money to spend in those idle hours. An economy where farmers were well paid for producing food might look quite different. It might also be politically more volatile. (Consider how much fuss the Consumers Association of Canada regularly makes over the price of supply-managed eggs and dairy products, the only industries that consistently provide farmers with adequate returns.)

Sadly, the agriculture policy of most governments around the world is intellectually and morally bankrupt. It fits the oft-quoted definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. It is this way because it is set not by farmers or in their interest, but by the vast array of folks that live off farmers. Agriculture works just fine for the Cargill's and Louis Dreyfus's of the world.

In the current federal election, it doesn't look like that will change.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax