Killing the land with farm subsidies

Media Appearances, Agriculture, Frontier Centre

As spring snow fell outside her office in Saskatoon, Nettie Wiebe, a farmer, professor and long-time political activist, was musing about an agricultural apocalypse.

Farm activist Nettie Wiebe says subsidy reform hasn’t yet helped family farms or the environment.

Brandon Sun / Farmers look at the huge profit increases racked up by others along the chain and wonder why more isn’t accruing to them. Part of the answer, they say, is to gain more market power for themselves.

Ms. Wiebe is a leader of Via Campesina, the international “peasant way” farm movement. She grows grain and raises cattle on her family’s 2,000-acre spread in the town of Laura, 70 kilometres outside the city. Ms. Wiebe stands firmly on the political left, but her message cuts across ideological boundaries when she describes the paradox of the agricultural policies of most western industrialized countries, including Canada.

Farmers are producers of food and stewards of the land. Government farming policies and subsidies have increased food production, but in the process destroyed land, depleted water resources and threatened rural communities. Subsidies have been dismantling the very systems they were designed to preserve.

“If we’re thoughtless about this and continue to pursue the direction we seem to be embarked on here so vigorously, it leads us to a place where we have more and more environmental degradation,” Ms. Wiebe says. “I fear that no amount of blue-boxing in Toronto can possibly make up for the kind of water and soil and ecological damage that we’re doing with our production methods.

“It leads us to a place where we have less of the sort of fundamental sustaining ecological pieces in place, and fewer options. It leads us to a place, too, where we have fewer people who know how to live in the countryside and know how to grow food in environmentally friendly ways.”

“We’re less fit to live in the places that demand a certain kind of interaction with our ecology,” says Ms. Wiebe.

“A lot of public dollars have flowed, often through the hands of farmers, directly to the agri-business component, the marketing, transportation, the chemical industry. And for people who are worried about outcomes, they should ask themselves whether that is a useful, environmentally friendly way of channelling public dollars. It seeds a monster that is marauding through the countryside.”

In Ms. Wiebe’s view, government policies that reward intense production of commodities, paying the largest operators for what they exploit instead of what they conserve, devalue farmers and their land.

“As long as we discount raw product, it’s a very short step to discount the environment in which it’s produced and the people who produce it,” she says.

Five years ago, the Earth Council, an international non-governmental organization chaired by Canadian environmentalist Maurice Strong, commissioned a study of subsidies and sustainable development. Andre de Moor, a Dutch economist, concluded the current agriculture subsidy regime in western industrialized countries costs billions without helping farmers or the environment.

“The gains in agricultural production over the past decades have been impressive,” Mr. de Moor wrote in his report, Subsidizing Unsustainable Development. “Even more impressive — and unacceptable — has been the cost: the degradation of soil, the deliberate impoverishment of some farmers and just as deliberate enrichment of others, the pesticide poisoning of water, air and soil. It is a price the Earth cannot sustain. And subsidies are a big part of the problem.”

Mr. de Moor calculated that in 1995, taxpayers and consumers in western industrialized countries plowed $335 billion U.S. into agriculture in the form of export subsidies, import taxes and intervention prices, subsidies for fertilizers and pesticides, inspection, research and training. This amounted to almost $16,000 per full-time farmer or $290 for each hectare of agricultural land. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, subsidies increased per capita, per full-time farmer and per hectare.

As subsidies encourage farmers to produce more and use more chemicals, soil and water resources are threatened, Mr. de Moor says. One-quarter of the world’s degraded soils result from poor farming practices such as overgrazing, short fallow periods and cultivating marginal lands without protecting against erosion. Overuse of land and cultivation of marginal land leads to the excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Chemicals can pollute water. Irresponsible irrigation can salinate soil and leave it unfit for farming.

Mr. de Moor says subsidies should not be linked to agricultural production. Nor should governments be subsidizing fertilizers, pesticides or wasteful and inefficient irrigation.

Robert Sopuck, director of policy for the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, and a researcher and writer for the free-market Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg, has also concluded that farm subsidies contribute to poor farming practices.

Mr. Sopuck, who lives on 192 hectares of land in Lake Audy, Man., says farm support programs that are based on the number of hectares farmed, encourage the cultivation of lands that never should have been broken. The cultivation of marginal lands leads to soil erosion, which fouls rivers, lakes and streams.

Taxpayer-financed irrigation projects, such as dams and major water diversions, are both straining water supplies and creating farmland that is unsustainable in the long term.

Nova Scotia writer Marq de Villiers reports in his award-winning book, Water, that while only 15 per cent of the world’s cultivated land is irrigated, these lands produce 40 per cent of the harvest.

“Without irrigation, yields in the world’s major breadbaskets — on which the feeding of the planet is dependent — would drop by almost half,” Mr. de Villiers writes.

However, irrigated lands are being taken out of production. He says that salination of soil from irrigation is spreading at a rate of more than one million hectares a year.

On farms with good drainage and rich soil, where irrigation is used as a water supplement, irrigation isn’t harmful.

“It is where irrigation is intensive, the soils naturally or, and the drainage either inadequate or nonexistent that the most serious problems will occur,” he writes. “The American West, turning the Great American Desert into one of the planet’s breadbaskets — is the most notorious example.”

Environmentalists are also sounding alarms about the potential of industrial hog farms to pollute water supplies. The Riverkeepers conservation group in the United States, led by Robert Kennedy Jr., with the support of the Sierra Club, launched a series of lawsuits this year to try to make industrial hog barns accountable for their waste disposal.

Mr. de Moor says farmers do not need to lose from well-planned subsidy reform. Subsidies have done a poor job of maintaining farm incomes. He found that for every $5 of public support, only $1 ends up in farmers’ pockets. In the big picture, consumers and taxpayers in western industrialized countries paid $335 billion in 1995 to transfer $66 billion to farmers.

Subsidies do not protect the family farm. Most subsidies are based on how much is grown and therefore reward rich farmers. In the U.S., one-third of government agriculture payments go to the wealthiest five per cent of farms, Mr. de Moor says.

When given the chance, farmers will care for their land. Despite the perverse incentives of farm subsidies, there are farmers who have been quietly going about the job of preserving their own land, driven by a desire to pass their farms on to their children.

Ten years ago, Peter Dowling kicked the fertilizer and pesticide habit on his family farm in Howe Lake, Ont. He had been growing barley using a system of “intensive cereal management,” which involved spraying chemicals on young grain shoots to strengthen them, following up with rich doses of fertilizer. Yields were high, but so were costs. He was tired of writing cheques to chemical suppliers, and he began to question the morality of the way he was farming.

“It was not a question of economics, but a question of philosophy, that it’s more sustainable,” says Mr. Dowling, the 52-year-old head of the National Farmers Union in Ontario. “Your farm is an ecosystem in itself, and the less stuff you bring into that ecosystem, and the more self sufficient you are, the more sustainable the farm is.”

Today, his 200-hectare farm is certified organic. He specializes in growing spelt, an ancient grain used in organic flour, and has found low-input farming to be a more satisfying way of life.

“This time of year, conventional farmers are trying to figure out what’s the best pesticide to use and the best fertilizer and so on, and that’s a decision and research that I don’t have to address,” he says.

“Farmers who are good at (organic growing) are just as good as any conventional farmer. Conventional farmers and critics of those who support organics will often argue that we’ll never feed the world with organic production. If governments and universities put as much resources into researching low-input agriculture as they put into genetically modified foods, then where would we be? Most of the advances made into low-input farming are those that have been developed by farmers on farms.”

His decision to reduce his input costs and replace them with his own labour as a farm manager also makes economic sense. Net farm incomes have stagnated for 25 years while gross farm incomes have been rising.

In 1974 in Ontario, to earn one dollar of net farm income, a farmer had to bring in $3.59. In 1999, to earn a dollar that farmer had to bring in $17.47.

“What would get people out of subsidies would be decent prices from the market,” Mr. Dowling says. “Consumers are paying ever-increasing prices for food. Farmers are getting about the same income for the food they produce. In between we have the packers, processors, restaurants and retailers that are getting obscene profits. On the other side it’s the fertilizer companies, the fuel companies, pesticides companies that are extracting huge profits. The way to solve that is to somehow give farmers more market power and to distribute some of that wealth.

Jack Penner, a Conservative MLA from Emerson, Man., farms 1,200 hectares with his three sons and jealously protects his lands and waters. Instead of tilling his fields, he leaves them covered with straw. He recently paid $128,000 for an “air seeder” that spikes seed into the ground through the straw. He has redesigned his irrigation system to guard against salination. He refers to his soil as his equity, his greatest asset.

“We are true environmentalists,” he says. “We didn’t like dust blowing in our eyes in the spring, so we changed the environment simply because we want to make sure the resource base is there for our kids.”

Mr. Sopuck argues that there is an environmental case to be made for farming with chemicals that allow larger yields on smaller pieces of prime land.

Mr. Sopuck says the production of grains and oil seeds lends itself to science and technology, and so yields keep increasing. An over-supply of grains and oil seeds is keeping prices down and this trend will continue.

Therefore, Western Canada must diversify its rural economy in a direction that government subsidies and interventions have not encouraged. If the current trend toward specializing in grain and oil seeds continues, he says, rural Manitoba would eventually be reduced to about a dozen farms and a dozen towns to support them. He supports an expansion of the cattle industry, and large hog farms, to provide a market for western feed grains.

Nettie Wiebe says Canada’s subsidy reform hasn’t helped family farms or the environment, and government aid that most helps family farms survive is infrastructure support.

She thinks governments must target reforms toward keeping farmers on the land, including small producers who have a stake in preserving their own lands for future generations.

“Otherwise, we continue to undermine farmers, and we do that in ways that haven’t even accounted for the costs,” she says.

“If you want someone to look after the environment, put it in the hands of someone who understands that their own well being, and the fate of the next generations, depends on how well they do.”