Farmers push back against corporate visions of greater co-operation

The agenda of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture meeting in Halifax promised days of farmers and agribusiness representatives talking about cooperation to create a sustainable industry. The theme seemed to be the exploration of partnerships farmers can make with their agribusiness customers in the food and fibre world of the future; how lions and lambs can work together.

But even as the CFA summer meeting began, there were signs the theme might go off the rails.

Three uninvited members of the Halifax Raging Grannies took to the mike to sing two anti-corporate agriculture songs.

To the tune ofJesus Loves Mewere lyrics like: Yes, scientists love me, yes biotech loves me, spin doctors tell me so.”

Bemused CFA delegates gave them a round of applause. Then began the corporate messaging. That did not go as planned either.

Syngenta Canada president Jay Bradshaw gave his vision for a prosperous Canadian agriculture sector feeding an increasingly food-needy world, working with companies like Syngenta that give them new products like hybrid and genetically modified wheat.

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One problem with the vision was that GM critics and other critics could undermine it by imposing political judgments into the science-based regulatory system through proposals to require market impact analysis before approving new varieties, he said.

Bradshaw complained this would undermine the credibility of the Canadian regulatory system and drive away innovation and investment, hurting farmers. He urged CFA members to lobby against this move.

There was immediate pushback.

Farmers said they support a science- based regulatory system for new product approvals but what is wrong with requiring an analysis of likely market reaction before something is allowed in the market?

“We’re just saying it makes sense within the context of farmer profitability to have potential market reaction information in hand before introducing a new product,” said former CFA president Bob Friesen, now with Farmers of North America.

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“I just think the seed companies want to kill an oversight of their ability to release new profitable products in the future,” said Enchant, Alta., farmer Lynn Jacobson.

Then came the corporate pitch about the need for more farmer-agribusiness co-operation in value chains to make the Canadian food sector more cost-competitive.

Again, there was farmer pushback as questioners wondered where farmer profitability fit into this value chain model. The food sector is profitable and other links in the chain make money. Farming, not so much.

Arguments from the agribusiness representatives that they too are profit-challenged carried little weight with the farmers at the table. The farmer message was that working with agribusiness is essential but for years, the farm sector as a whole has lost money in the market while buyers and suppliers make money.

Farmer profitability must be part of any new food sector co-operative business model.

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Sometimes partnership talk can get derailed by the realities of unequal power in the proposed pairing.