Food security a national priority

First published:
Feb 27, 2002

National sovereignty became headline news a few weeks ago as Canadians watched our military go to Afghanistan to join the American forces. As federal politicians decried our lack of proper uniforms and equipment, Canadians felt a real sense of shame. Soldiers stood out like sore green thumbs on the desert landscape and equipment sat in Edmonton waiting for American airplanes to get the tanks deployed. And finally, it was unclear if Canadian forces were going to hand over military prisoners to the Americans, who, some say, are in violation of the Geneva Convention.

Our once proud military was in tatters. It had been a long time since our national identity was so clearly challenged.

The two Olympic gold medals won by our men’s and women’s hockey teams this past week put a salve on our wounded pride. But hopefully, the pain of our mistakes is not so easily forgotten. If the recent events around Canada’s military should make clear is that we must not take our sovereignty for granted.

Which brings us to a disturbing report released by Statistics Canada on Feb. 22.

The number of Canadian farmers making a living from working the land is plunging, according to the report. Since 1998, 28 per cent of farmers have left their operations. Or, to say it another way, 313,000 farmers are gone. Less than one per cent of our population now grows our food.

Ontario saw the worst drop with 35,300 farmers walking away. That is a 31 per cent drop, the highest in the country. We are left with about 79,000 Ontario farmers making their living from the farm.

Canada used to have 1.2 million farmers just after World War Two. It was a proud way to make a living. It was economically feasible. But there are more numbers released that are also troubling. Net profit from farming is one-quarter of its peak set in 1975.

What this all means is simply fewer farmers are planting more crops and running larger operations and making less money.

In talking to Trent Hills Councillor Bill Petherick over the weekend, a 20-year veteran of county politics and a multi-generation farmer outside of Campbellford, he says there are few choices. While at one time there were several 100-acre farms around his own operation, today, he either owns or rents 900 acres in his cattle/dairy farm.

“That means eight family farms are gone,” he said.

Northumberland County main industry is agriculture. Despite all the noise made by local municipal council around economic development, tourism and such, nobody pays any attention to agriculture.

But these figures are more than the usual “farmers-got-it-tough” story. Things are going to get a lot worse.

But all the news is not bad. But, the number of acres planted in 2001 was at an all time high. Poultry meat, egg and milk production has increased in recent years. But what this means is farms are getting bigger and producing more. And some of the markets are growing.

But are large farms necessarily better. Ask anybody in Cobourg and Port Hope after a major industry leaves or closes down. It is a massive blow to the economy. Most planners will tell you a diverse local economy is best with many smaller businesses. That way when one goes, it is not crippling.

Certainly this must hold true for agriculture. With many family farms our food supply is more stable than when we are at the mercy of massive corporate farms.

Maybe that doesn’t make a difference to most people in Northumberland. Hey, it is easy to go to the local grocery store and pick out beautiful fresh fruit – grapes from Chile, Oranges and lettuce from the United States, tomatoes from Mexico, beef from South America. There is the appearance of abundance and it is relatively cheap.

But if we cannot feed ourselves, then we are not a sovereign nation. It is no different than saying, if we cannot defend ourselves, we are not a sovereign nation.

County politicians can no longer sit idly by. This is a national crisis, but it must be fought on the local front.

Municipal leaders must join with farmers and farm organizations like the Northumberland Federation of Agriculture to get federal politician’s attention. If Finance Minister Paul Martin can take time to speak with urban mayors about their woes, then he and others can take time to meet with rural municipal leaders to hear about our emergency.

Like the shortsighted military planning that took place after the cold war ended, farm policy gets the same treatment. But this time, it will not be a national embarrassment before the world. We will be starving to death or giving away the last vestiges of our autonomy so we can eat. Just think about how desperately American would like to import our water to realize that this is not as far-fetched as it may seem.

This is not the raving of some twisted conspiracy theory. Farmers have warned us about the loss of the family farm and its impact on our nationhood. Maybe it is time we took a few moments to listen. Give it some thought the next time you are standing in the check out line of a grocery store. Mentally take out all the food that comes from another country. See what is left.

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