Philosophical divide seen in ag policy making

The issue of royalties on farm-saved seed has given new life to the National Farmers Union. For many years, the NFU has been largely invisible in farm policy debates. With the seed issue, it has tapped into a farmer and public sentiment that’s more mainstream.

In general, many if not most farmers believe they’re being overcharged for farm inputs. They’re wary of big corporations and they’re concerned about any initiative carrying an additional price tag.

With the proposals for either an endpoint royalty to pay for variety development or a trailing royalty on farm-saved seed, there are certainly legitimate concerns.

However, the NFU’s Save Our Seed (SOS) campaign exploits the bias against big corporate agriculture rather than trying to find workable solutions.

Emotion is a much easier sell than the intricacies of economics and policy. While the NFU boasts some bright people within its ranks, left-wing, anti-business ideology is often the driving force.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association has been searching for relevancy since the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly powers ended back in 2012. It was a decades-long battle for Wheat Grower supporters, governed by a right-wing business philosophy.

Over time, its argument for marketing freedom resonated with more and more producers. While the change was controversial, few farmers now argue for a return to the days when wheat, durum and export barley had to be sold through the CWB.

Following its monumental policy win, the wheat growers association hasn’t been galvanized behind a single identifiable cause. It is still a feel-good club that includes some magnetic personalities, but it isn’t much of a force in policy development. This is in contrast to the NFU, where the seed royalty issue has emerged as a uniting cause.

Umbrella farm groups such as the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s Keystone Agricultural Producers can find it difficult to identify issues on which to lead. A diverse farmer membership and the intricacies of policy can preclude being entirely for or against any particular direction.

More than ever, people want simple answers. Distilling a debate into “marketing freedom” or “Save Our Seeds” can rally supporters.

Interestingly, some of the left-wing and right-wing warriors of the past have gravitated to commodity commissions to advance their views. Both the NFU and the wheat growers are voluntary organizations dealing with chronic underfunding for efficient policy development and lobbying. The commodity commissions have money and staff for those functions.

Cam Goff, a farmer from Hanley, Sask., has written recent newspaper editorials supporting the Save Our Seeds campaign. Goff is a vice-president of the National Farmers Union, but he’s also a producer-elected director for the Saskatchewan Barley Development Commission. Years ago, Goff was a farmer-elected director of the wheat board and fought a losing battle to maintain its monopoly.

Meanwhile, Alberta Barley has Jeff Nielsen as a director. He also serves as president of Grain Growers of Canada. A farmer from near Olds, Alta., Nielsen was in the forefront of the marketing freedom campaign, even pushing for change from the inside as an elected CWB director. Nielsen can frequently be found lobbying politicians in Ottawa.

Left- and right-wing farm philosophy is still alive and well, but the ideological battleground has become more complex with producer-funded commissions attracting players holding a wide range of opinions.

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