Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he “would make Canada unrecognizable.” His agriculture minister, Gerry Ritz, certainly did his part to make Canadian agriculture and food unrecognizable.
Ritz’s destructive record speaks for itself. Does Canada’s Agricultural Hall of Fame really want to damage its reputation by inducting former Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz (2007-15)? Consider a small part of Minister Ritz’s destructive legacy.
Under Ritz’s watch, more than 15 percent of farmers went out of business. Farmers now number a mere 193,000 and our collective debt level has ballooned to more than $102 billion.
Ritz is responsible for dismantling the farmer-directed Canadian Wheat Board single desk marketing agency without giving farmers a vote. He ignored hard facts and the history of how well the CWB served farmers. Destroying the CWB continues to cost farmers billions of dollars every year.
Ritz then took the many hard assets of the CWB, including thousands of grain cars, office buildings, grain ships, and a substantial amount of cash, and transferred them all to a joint venture between the government of Saudi Arabia and the giant multinational company Bunge under so-far secret terms.
All of those millions of dollars of assets were paid for by farmers, yet Ritz still spent millions to shut down the CWB, including tax dollars. Farmers are still in court seeking restitution for their money and assets. The taxpayers of Canada may never receive a proper accounting.
After Ritz killed the CWB, Canada’s premium customers started to complain of quality and delivery problems. Prairie wheat, which once consistently traded at a premium to American wheat, now sells for much less. Lower grain prices and poor relations with end-use buyers have become the norm because private elevator companies cannot match the CWB’s marketing sophistication.
Since 2012, farmers have lost an increasing share of our grain’s value to elevator companies. The companies are using this extra money to pay for mergers and the overbuilding of handling facilities.
Thanks to Ritz, the Port of Churchill and the rail line serving it were rendered uneconomical, and Ottawa is now spending tax dollars to pick up the pieces.
Ritz is also responsible for bringing in UPOV ’91 Intellectual Property Rights legislation, which increased the price of seed and laid the groundwork to allow multinational seed companies to charge royalties on our harvested crops.
Ritz accelerated the previous government’s cuts to crop research stations and plant breeding, turning them and the rights to public research results over to agribusiness. These actions shift yet more costs onto already cash-pressed farmers.
Input suppliers and commodity buyers were the winners under Ritz’s agenda, while farmer numbers and their economic viability went down. How is this good for the future? Under Ritz’s watch, Canada’s meat inspection regulations were weakened, leading to 22 deaths from listeria poisoning.
Ritz attacked farmer livelihoods and hampered Canada’s ability to fight climate change when he cut the PFRA Community Pastures program, in spite of its decades-long success in soil research, providing shelter belt trees, water management knowledge and natural grasslands preservation.
Let’s not forget that Ritz changed the AgStability and AgInvest farm safety net programs, making them much less useful to farmers.
Minister Ritz also left supply management for dairy, poultry and egg sectors very much weakened.
The Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame does not have the prestige of a Nobel Prize, but it should seek to do much better. Perhaps a “Hall of Infamy” award would be a better fit for Ritz in recognition of the damage he has done to Canadian agriculture and Canadian farmers.
Ian Robson is a National Farmers Union board member and operates a mixed farm with his family at Deleau, Man.