In the decades since the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement and later the North American Free Trade Agreement were signed, Canadian agriculture has undergone a significant shift.
There was once a multitude of diverse local and regional economic drivers, but now we have a one-size-fits-all, export-driven, low-priced commodity production model.
Farm capital needs have sky-rocketed as illustrated by the massive $90 billion farm debt. Off-farm investors control more and more of Canada’s farmland. Production — per farm, per acre and per worker — continues to go up. And that production became increasingly export and transport dependent as NAFTA-driven deregulation accelerated consolidation and transnational ownership of handling and processing facilities.
The once mighty farmer co-operative grain handlers and processors have been dismantled and absorbed into a handful of transnational corporations. Eighty percent of Vancouver’s terminal capacity used to be owned and operated by the three prairie pool elevator companies. Now, the private trade owns it all.
With the Canadian Wheat Board gone, there is no real economic participation by farmers beyond the farmgate, nor any referee to discipline the railroads.
Prairie farmers, who once ran most of Canada’s grain industry, no longer have a direct connection to customers and end-users.
Under NAFTA, Canada’s regulatory system facilitated North American integration of pork and beef slaughter, processing and marketing at the expense of regional and local processors, marketers and the jobs they provided.
Despite trade agreements, Canadian exports are still disadvantaged due to transportation costs.
Apart from supply management sectors and a brief spike after 2009, overall inflation-adjusted net farm income is dismal.
Farm communities across Canada are suffering from chronic economic decline.
This was camouflaged by off-farm manufacturing jobs in Eastern Canada and resource sector jobs in Western Canada, but those jobs are no longer easy to get. The decline of Canada’s rural economy is not often discussed, but four decades of loss have diminished the quality of rural life.
The decline of rural Canada is stark and given little attention compared to the rural quality of life in other developed countries.
Canada’s growing dependence on food imports is another sobering fact. We can grow many of these products, but have lost our own market because trade agreements help integrated food companies operate across borders, depressing prices for producers while controlling the consumer price.
Trade agreements also reward overprocessing of foods by substituting basic ingredients with cheaper ones.
U.S. President Donald Trump vilifies Mexico for the loss of U.S. jobs, but he fails to mention the American companies that flocked to the Mexican maquiladoras to take advantage of low labour and environmental standards.
NAFTA has also caused a lot of damage to the Canadian rural economy and U.S. President Donald Trump is likely to add more.
The last thing rural Canada needs is more give-aways to the U.S. in an attempt to persuade the Americans not to back out of the NAFTA deal.
It is time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stopped trading away the livelihoods of Canadian farmers and started repairing the damage these deals have done.
The decline of the Canadian rural economy must be turned around if Trudeau wants to prevent the election of a Trump-like Canadian leader in three years.
We need an agenda for agriculture that makes rural quality of life and viable family farms the priority.
Jan Slomp is president of the National Farmers Union. He farms near Courtenay, B.C.