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Ottawa takes aim against a historic right of grain farmers

September 1, 2011

Canada’s government has announced plans to abolish western grain farmers’ right to market their products collectively as a protection against agribusiness monopolies. In the following article, originally printed in Briarpatch Magazine, Saskatchewan wheat farmer Terry Boehm explains the stakes and appeals for support. Boehm is the president of the National Farmers Union.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) is a Canadian affiliate of the farmers’

Terry Boehm

International, La Via Campesina. As part of La Via Campesina, the NFU contributes to the goal of food sovereignty, that is restoring control by farmers and working people over the production and distribution of food. La Via Campesina has been a prominent supporter of Bolivia’s Cochabamba initiative for global climate justice. The NFU is an important component of the struggle for environmental justice in Canada.

See also “World Farmers’ Alliance Challenges Food Profiteers” and “Cochabamba: Climate Justice Has a New Program and New Hope for Victory.” My next post on this website will discuss the NFU.

Terry Boehm refers to Ottawa’s August deadline for abolishing “single-desk” grain marketing in Canada. At this time, the matter is still pending. In Boehm’s article, below, I have added subheads and some paragraphing.

In defence of the Canadian Wheat Board

By Terry Boehm, President, National Farmers Union

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have declared they will end the Canadian Wheat Board single desk in August 2012. Recklessly turning the clock back a hundred years, this move will leave farmers at the hands of the robber barons of the grain trade who are already more powerful than ever before.

The Canadian Wheat Board, at its most basic level, is a wheat and barley marketing agency for western Canadian farmers. Farmers pay for its operations and run it through a majority of farmer-elected directors (ten are elected and five are appointed by the government). There is no cost to the government. All it requires to function is legislation that grants it the authority to market wheat and barley through a single desk.

A single desk means that buyers of western Canadian milling wheat and malting barley must go through the Canadian Wheat Board. By being the single source for western wheat and barley, the board is able to capture higher prices for farmers in the global and domestic market place. All returns go directly to farmers with the exception of a small operating fee.

Multiple peer-reviewed economic studies have proven that, through the single desk system, Canadian farmers earn more, and by extension the country’s economy as a whole benefits. The Wheat Board gives farmers market power in an international grain trade dominated by a handful of giant multinational grain companies.

Genesis

The Canadian Wheat Board itself is 76 years old, but it had an even longer genesis. During the First World War, the Canadian government created a wheat board to deal with rising grain prices and the inability of private trade to deal with the situation. The board was very popular among farmers, who began to earn high prices for their grain. In 1920, however, the government disbanded the board, and grain prices collapsed. Farmers agitated for its reinstatement to no avail.

These same farmers created the Progressive Party, which advocated the re-establishment of a wheat board as part of its agricultural platform. In 1921, 65 Progressives were elected federally, forming the second largest party in Parliament. The Liberal government of Mackenzie King absorbed many of them by the late ’20s. Others became members of the Ginger Group that led to the formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, known as the CCF, which later became the NDP [New Democratic Party].

Meanwhile, farmers formed co-operatively owned wheat pools and created a central selling agency to market their grain. This agency collapsed with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Conservative Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett first created the single-desk Canadian Wheat Board in 1935 as a last-ditch effort to appease the socialists of the country. He lost the 1935 election anyhow, but the Liberals maintained the Canadian Wheat Board, and by 1943 it was marketing wheat, oats and barley through the single desk.

Benefits

Wheat Board marketing and single-desk selling bring hundreds of millions more dollars to farmers each year than they would receive in an open market. It also brings several times this amount in benefits by acting as an advocate for farmers, giving them the strength to negotiate with railways and making sure all premiums, bonuses and foreign currency trades go directly to farmers.

The plan to destroy the single desk, which Harper and Ritz are framing as marketing choice and freedom, will transfer these benefits and funds to some of the richest corporations of the world. Transnational grain companies like Archer Daniels Midland Company, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfus and Viterra will capture the premiums for themselves and likely dilute the quality of Canadian grain as we have seen in Australia in the years that followed the disbanding of the Australian Wheat Board in 1999.

Farmer vote denied

The current Canadian Wheat Board Act calls for a farmer vote before any grains are removed or added in whole or in part to the board’s purview. Afraid to allow democracy to function, Ritz and Harper are refusing to allow farmers to decide about the future of the single desk. They know that the vast majority of farmers support the single desk and that farmers have consistently elected pro-single-desk directors since 1998. For years now, the Harper government has also imposed a gag order disallowing the Wheat Board from speak¬ing about the advantages of the single desk.

In an industry fraught with the challenges of unpredictable weather, volatile prices and huge economic powers bent on extracting all they can from farmers, the Canadian Wheat Board allows prairie farmers some form of economic justice for the fruits of their labour. Stephen Harper wants to destroy that. We must not let him get away with this. In the name of democracy, we need to stand up for the Wheat Board and all that it represents.

Further reading:

What is the single desk?” (Canada Wheat Board)

What difference does the Canada Wheat Board make?” (National Farmers Union)

Terry Boehm’s article originally appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Briarpatch Magazine, published in Regina, Saskatchewan. Subscriptions to Briarpatch are available for $28.95/year (within Canada); for information, go to www.briarpatchmagazine.com.

The National Farmers Union offers associate memberships for non-farmers for $65/year. Go to the NFU membership page.

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