Co-ops help balance power in agriculture systems: NFU

43rd annual convention Trade agreements, dismantling of co-ops seen as threats to farmers’ ability to make a fair living

Co-ops are still important organizing structures, especially considering the government’s trend of dismantling the regulatory processes and institutions that balance power relations in the agriculture industry, said Terry Boehm, National Farmers Union president.

An example of the system being pulled apart is the Canadian Grain Commission coming under Agriculture Canada’s Administrative Monetary Penalties Act, meaning it will no longer be a quasi-independent institution, Boehm said in his opening address at the 43rd annual NFU convention in Saskatoon.

“It became a department of the ministry of agriculture, as a function of that act, and the minister has direct control,” Boehm said. “They have to put their priorities and plans before the minister before they proceed, whereas in the past they would just have to report.”

The grain commission has provided a quality control system for a century, which would catch contaminated grain shipments going to port from the country elevator system. Boehm said it was constructed to work somewhat independently for a reason, and that putting it under the oversight of Agriculture Canada will lead to the end of inward inspection, and threaten Canada’s international reputation of reliable high-quality grain.

Boehm said a significant problem in this country is something called regulatory capture: civil servants and government have been captured by those with wealth and the ability to lobby constantly so that they can continue to construct regulations and laws that favour the wealthy and the powerful.

“We have compartments of our governments that are identifying completely with the very parties they should be regulating to ensure there is a fair and economically just system operating for farmers or other citizens,” Boehm said Nov. 22.

Co-ops, because they are self-built and self-controlled through a democratic process, are not easily dismantled and coerced by groups trying to extract as much as possible from farmers.

Another threat against farmers’ ability to make a fair living are the trade agreements the government is signing, including the Canada-China Investment treaty.

“The terms of this agreement, without adequate debate and consultation or even information, are to last for 15 years at a minimum. But any arrangement that had been conducted under the terms of that agreement would continue for an additional 15 years,” Boehm said.

“This government has committed us to something that allows access to our natural resources, that protects the largest investors in the world for 31 years less a day.”

Boehm said these trade agreements strangle the ability to act as citizens and affect how governments behave.

“This is a sobering statement for many of us who will probably close out our lifetimes within the terms of this agreement, and this is done with 21 days of notice to the Parliament of Canada.”

The NFU’s annual convention was titled Co-ops: An Exercise in Democracy. Boehm said the staggering concentration of wealth and resources promoted by laws, and threats to Canadian sovereignty from international trade agreements, means the power created by co-ops is essential for farmers to keep some control over their livelihoods.

“It’s critically important at this point in time that we revisit the building of co-operatives, their value and their democratic structures and the positive attributes they bring to us in our ability to organize and to do things collectively in a way that benefits all of is in society that participate in them,” Boehm said.