Wheat Board: Makeover or Takeover? Questions in the Wake of Government Decision

11916_wpm_hiresI originally posted this in my Farm to Table local/seasonal food blog. And you can find other food related articles there as well.

There’s been a startling lack of deep, focused food security and agricultural economic questions being asked about the Conservative Government’s decision to scrap the Canadian Wheat Board. At least there has been in the media. Farmers may be asking these questions amongst themselves, but I haven’t seen any of our large media sources musing aloud about food safety for Canadians or economic equality for farmers.

Before I start introducing questions myself, I’ll start by saying this: The Canadian Wheat Board is a problematic organization.

Yes, it ensures a market, set price, and guaranteed ports for our Prairie wheat and barley farmers. And, if you believe Wheat Board Chair (and farmer), Allen Oberg, it has the support of 62 percent of wheat growers and 51 percent of barley growers.

But as it guarantees a market, it also limits what farmers can do with their own crops. Farmers don’t get to choose a market. They don’t get to set prices. Under Wheat Board regulations, they don’t have the opportunity to make much of a decision about what happens to their product.

Small farmers, specialty farmers, organic farmers have often railed against the Wheat Board, claiming that their ability to earn as much as they can for their grain is severely limited.

Of course, these same farmers may, in some years, benefit from the insurance that being part of a collective ensures. Droughts, floods, and economic upheaval are unpredictable that way.

Whether or not the Wheat Board works is not really my point, however – though I will agree that, in its current state, it needs substantial change. I am more concerned about how the Wheat Board is being dismantled than why.

And the how concerns me. Greatly.

Let’s look at what the Conservative Government has proposed: not the abrupt end of the Board, but, rather, an interesting – and hardly subtle – restructuring. Gone will be the 10 farmer-elected directors. Remaining? The 5 government-appointed positions. These government seats will continue to operate for another 5 years, building a business model for a new Board (based on volunteer farmer buy-in) and entertaining offers for privatization.

They’re not proposing to eliminate the Board as much as take it over.

Sure, this Government-run Board will allow farmers to set their own prices and find their own markets. That seems like a good option for some growers. But they will also be responsible for setting up a privatized new Board that will see many, many farmers making the decision to continue with a large-scale producer marketing system.

Say what you will about the current Wheat Board, but they have successfully fended off market domination by multinational grain handling organizations such as Viterra or Cargill. And they have refused the introduction of Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Wheat in our fields.

These are the decisions of farmers. They are the decisions of representatives elected by farmers. They are decisions that have helped protect the way that wheat is grown in Canada and the food that ends up on our tables.

But there will no longer be any farmers in control of the future of the Wheat Board. No longer farmers influencing the critical decisions that will affect all farms and farmers in Western Canada. There will be no one affiliated with the fields making decisions on the grains that feed us. Not any time soon, at least.

Just representatives of the Federal Government.

So, what happens when a company such as Viterra pitches a proposal to act as a privatized producer-marketing operator for grain growers? A defacto Wheat Board? What happens if they want to flood export ports with the grain of their farmers? Or set a price that severely undercuts other growers?

What happens if Monsanto sets its sights on Western Canada?

Actually, scrap that. They’ve had their sights set on the Western Canadian Wheat crop for a long, long time.

The question is, what happens when Monsanto starts approaching farmers to use their seed?

Bad Things. Terrible things. Scary things.

Monsanto has a horrible history, you see. They don’t casually introduce their seed to a few farms and hope for the best. They take over the crops of entire countries. They make it illegal to save seed. They chase down farmers who have had Monsanto seed blow into their fields. They choke out anyone who is not growing their product. They treat opposing farms like weeds. Monsanto is most efficient at eliminating weeds.

What happens when Monsanto works with a private multinational such as Viterra or Cargill? What happens when all of this lobbying power and economic promise approaches this new farmer-removed Wheat Board?

I don’t have the answer to these questions. Neither do many people in the media. Not for certain.

But there are definitely suspicions.

The current Government of Canada has a rich history of responding positively to socially, economically, and environmentally catastrophic proposals that have short-term economic gain.

Any group that thinks the Tar Sands a responsible means of expanding our economy should not be responsible for the food that feeds both Canadians and people around the world. Any government that refuses to take climate change, air pollution, water conservation, green energy, any form of environmental responsibility seriously should not have their hands on the world’s breadbasket.

Not even for the short term.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert in building producer protection or producer marketing systems. I’m not an agricultural economist, so I’m not going to offer a replacement model for easing a transition from Wheat Board to whatever comes next.

What I will say is that the process needs the voices of farmers. And there needs to be safeguards put in place so that a massive shifting of power, decision, and economic equality doesn’t occur across the plains of Canada.

I don’t see any of that happening in this current Federal Government proposal.

And I don’t see the right questions being asked.

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