November 14, 2000
Lawrence Solomon knows the way to make farming environmentally, socially and economically sustainable: eliminate all farm supports, including crop insurance, NISA, AIDA and supply management.
“No one should need encouragement to farm or do anything else,” Solomon, executive director of the Toronto-based Urban Renaissance Institute, an environmental organization, told the ‘Recapturing Wealth on the Canadian prairies’ conference here recently.
“There is a bright future for farming, but it doesn’t include government. You’ll wilt on the vine with government. But throw government off your back, get close to your customers – in other words, back to your roots and you will thrive.”
Farmers are appreciated by the public right now, said Solomon who regularly criticizes agriculture in his column in the National Post. Farmers are thought to be environmentally benign. But environmentalists know better, Solomon said.
“We don’t like the energy intensity of a lot of agricultural practices,” he said. “We don’t like the pesticide and fertilizer use. We don’t like the fish kills in P.E.I. We don’t like the soil degradation. We don’t like the water pollution. Right now farmers are too popular for environmentalists to go public with their concerns. That’s for now. And that can change very quickly. I think we’re beginning to see the changes now.”
The contamination of Walkerton’s water with the deadly E.coli bacteria is the start, he said. The public is fickle and farmers are already losing support from their non-farmer neighbours, unhappy with right-to-farm legislation.
“You’re setting up for a big backlash,” he said.
Farmers are mistaken if they think their industry is special because of its contribution to the economy. Agriculture accounts for just 1.6 per cent of Canada’s GDP.
“Agriculture is not an economic powerhouse. It is a niche in the Canadian economy.”
When Nortel recently lost a quarter of its share value, that represented nine per cent of Canada’s GDP, or six times the agriculture sector’s contribution, according to Solomon.
“Some people argue people have to eat, as if that makes farmers more important than other producers who provide housing materials or fuel or the clothes we need or the cars we need or the services we need,” he said.
“We do need to eat but we also need other goods and services.”
“Farmers don’t take precedence over other sectors. Politicians know where their bread is buttered.”
If farm subsidies were eliminated, some farmers might go out of business and some communities might decline or disappear, but those that survive would be stronger and do less damage to the environment. That’s what happened in New Zealand when subsidies were eliminated overnight in the mid-1980s, according to Solomon. For every dollar earned by a Canadian farmer, there’s $3 in subsidies, according to Solomon. The ratio is $1 to $6 for Ontario agriculture, he added. In an interview later, Solomon said western Canadian grain farmers are much less subsidized than farmers in Ontario and Quebec where supply management dominates. (Supply management, while not a subsidy in the strictest sense, is considered a form of support because it exists by government fiat.)
“I think if we removed the subsidies, western grain farmers wouldn’t be all that much affected,” he said.
Solomon said if it was up to him he’d phase out all farm subsidies over 10 years. Support would continue for older farmers, while new entrants wouldn’t get a cent. Under his plan the government would also guarantee the value of farmers’ assets during the transition.
“I think it’s a blessing there are so few new young farmers in the system. It means that the transition can be easy.”
Toronto is one of the most successful farming regions in Canada, says Solomon. There’s not much land, but the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) produces 50 per cent more farm output than Nova Scotia, 67 per cent more than P.E.I., and 80 per cent more than New Brunswick, according to Solomon.
“The GTA you know it is an industrial powerhouse, well it’s an agricultural powerhouse,” he said. “And that’s because it services a large urban population. That has given it the most diversified agricultural economy in Canada. GTA farmers are close to their customers. And those customers don’t want commodities. They want organic produce. They want herbs for the health food stores. They want exotic grains for the restaurants.”
In an interview, Solomon said most of the farmers serving urban areas are family farms and they make money.