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78th Annual Summer Conference, August 6–9, 2009

Global Pressures that Will Shape the Politics of Food

DONALD L. COXE, global portfolio strategist, former general manager, Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and former general counsel, Canadian Federation of Agriculture (bio)
Moderator: ALAN PEARSON, President, CIPA

Summary by Arthur Churchyard, CIPA Youth Scholarship Recipient

The global financial crisis may not be the biggest crisis of this decade – the global food crisis could be bigger. How'd we get here? Where is here? And what do we do about it?

Winter: preserves, and an orange at Christmas (I experienced this myself, and I'm not that old). Then we experienced perpetual surplus and abundance. We're learning how to try to manage this.

I joined Ontario Federation of Agriculture in 1968, around the time of the publication, The Challenge of Abundance. The publication was about how to save family farms in Ontario and rural structure of Ontario in a situation in which we might have “abundance” forever. Got this expression from J.F. Kennedy who brought out Feed Grains Act, and other legislation that had to do with surplus. Hubert Humphrey knew all about agriculture (JFK’s competitor).

In debate in West Virginia (mostly mining country) Kennedy carried the night by saying that 20 million people went to bed hungry everyday. Number actually came from American report that said this 20 million people go hungry due to excessive dieting.

Feed Grains Act, under Kennedy, became Food Security Act. Law was this: farmers are paid a price above market price provided they set land aside and not cultivate it. Competition was ferocious internationally so they would sell off for low interest loans (deemed within trade rules).

I recall Pierre Trudeau saying, “Why should I sell your wheat?”. A brilliant strategy, it recognized the government of China, and this sold wheat from Canada (whereas US still stuck with tiny Taiwan).

US subsidies, supply management, designed to protect farm incomes.

Those policies did work, and both of these pale in comparison to EU Common Agriculture Policy (which spends 40% of budget on subsidies).

The EU subsidies are beyond belief. In 1970, a friend did a survey of farms in France – never seen such lush farms; amount of money spent on them, no way Saskatchewan rapeseed can compete.

Why is there a crisis now, given these subsidies?

If the whole ag sector is handmaiden of government, for 50 years, you don't have the vitality and self-rule process. As a result, young people don't want to go back on the family farm again.

When government is doing all the paying, you don't use science as much as in other sectors (because government doesn't want you to grow more and be more efficient).

Giving food to developing countries year after year keeps them poor. In the name of being generous, you prevent developing agricultural sectors.

As long as policies of first world collectively suppress food prices in third world, with population growth in that part of world, this will make it tough to fight poverty. It's just how these programs have worked; no one evil planned them.

At turn of the millennium, gurus never said price of grains would go up and we would have food shortages like never before. A prediction like this would never have been printed because everyone knew there was so much to go around.

The reality: Eight years in a row, the total supply of grains on hand has fallen. Doesn't seem like such a big deal at the beginning. Consumption growing 3.5%, but cultivation only growing 1.5%. In 2007, grain prices started climbing. The cause? Renewable energy: with attitude, “we're growing it ourselves, and we'll put those Arabs in their place” – and Congress passed laws that burn up subsidies such as ethanol. Why subsidies for corn ethanol and then impose taxes against Brazil’s cane sugar, when cane sugar is a better source of starch and ethanol? It's a bad idea to begin with.

The second factor in the food crisis is protein. Scholars observing poorer districts of India noticed healthier physiques of children (getting milk and meat). Protein is needed to stay healthy but six units plant protein required to produce one animal protein.

Over a billion people going from poverty to middle class in 25 years. Paying too much for petroleum here? Not as big a deal as getting protein in India.

Reaction: let's go back to the world of Blake and Goldsmith. We ought to reject science, go back to farming when it simple and beautiful and smelly? We want to use technology for all its worth. Use genetically modified seeds and more fertilizer. Last year in US, survived shorter growing season because it was GM.

Talking to Secretary of Agriculture in 70s; short growing season; response: the American minister convened climatologists, and they think there will be a new ice age, James Hansen led that committee; global cooling (Hansen had good reason at the time); sunspots, back at the time of Norman conquest they were growing grapes in Greenland; warm conditions allowed Europe's population to triple, and later sunspots caused down cycle.

Error of Napolean invading Moscow – winter came 6 weeks early due to sunspot cycle. In 2001, sunspots started plummeting. NASA started tracking, and we've missed the most sunspots in recent years as we have in 90 years. Experts predicted biggest solar cycle of all time coming up, but have been wrong; sunspots haven't come back for a while; may have to revise global warming theories.

Scotland: bankrupt because of cold weather. In the 18th century, Ireland realized it could grow potatoes and could survive cold spells. Then the world warmed up and blights developed. Huge famine as a result.

In agriculture it's really crucial to think about sunspot cycles. New York City had coldest July on record. It was suggested in the 1970s that Monsanto develop cold-tolerant GM seed traits into plants.

80% of water used for agriculture. We can't continue like this. Soybeans are thirstiest crop there is; thousands of tons of water for a bushel. We need seeds that don't use as much water.

EU policy and Prince Charles: banning GM seeds in Europe, don't want productive seeds there, and they won't import food from Africa, affecting possibility that Africa could export GM (concerned).

A science success story: Malawi, land locked, widespread malnutrition. Fertilizer and seeds available through subsidy from Bush administration allowed country to produce extra food.

Robert Mugabe: emergency meeting of UN Food Commission. Mugabe said global food crisis is caused by agri-industry and empiricists. He thinks traditional agriculture will be sufficient.

So what should we do about it? Big problems are excesses and failures in the agribusiness community. Organic food? Go for it, if you have the money but you couldn't survive through winter relying on a farmer's market. Don't ban the business you disagree with – support the one you do.

US government supports burning up renewable energy in place of food.

But no recorded period in history has been this warm; this has been longest period for more than 200 years; what are we saving the planet for? Another ice age will come.

We need to produce more food, and we need to look at what we do with our science. The taxpayers of Canada should end all the supply management programs, buy out all the farmers, and make agriculture an export-oriented industry. Bring together investors and scientists at University of Guelph to take off the gloves because the demand will be there. Canada can move back to great role we played as the fifth largest navy.

Canadians can collectively do something to help the world. 100 million Chinese will be eating more protein. We can tell them to go eat more rice, or we can help them solve the problem. A hinge in history that we can get right: we can do something right for Canada, and for the world.

Question Period

Q: Sunspots: Scientists aware of these issues. Sunspots are not as severe a factor as you suggest.

A: Millions more people being born. Urbanization is consuming hectares of farmland, and pollution; therefore, we have to produce more vegetable protein for millions more people, equivalent to a new Canada every 3 years in China alone.

– Law in US burning soybeans and corn. EU driving up price of palm oil, which is protein source for poorer nations. Sent to committee to review.

– For example, Monsoon in India not as big as expected. No hurricanes. Some evidence indicates there could be change in global climate. We need international mechanisms to deal with these things. We're beyond the stage of talking about it.

– We've added 0.5 billion people to middle class in this decade, characterized by increased protein in diet.

– Pygmy wheat saved a billion lives. Some groups denounced medal because it added to world's population.

Q: International development: 30 years ago the mantra was “A rising tide raises all boats.” In past 40 years, despite progress, we haven't seen that. 2.7 million people in Canada. Greater problem worldwide. Business as usual – can it actually change world hunger?

A: Canada has distribution problems, in spite of growing more food. But, we do have less starvation in the world today. Some predicted we didn't have to worry about the Chinese driving cars? Wrong prediction. Chinese have money to buy cars and more protein. In Saudi Arabia, buying up best land, and having all production sent to Saudi Arabia – and UN sending food into Sudan at same time. Bad distribution model.

Q: Sunspots and science are not the only factors, and it's naïve to suggest there is one scientific fix. Study states last 40 years have not been successful; supported by World Bank, FAO, science strategies of 75 nations. We can't ignore that report.

A: Sunspots aren't about everything, sorry if I gave that impression. In the report you mentioned, science applied to date is not all finished.

– Burning corn and soybeans conflicts with demand for protein to eat. Loss of hectares under cultivation is more than expected.

– More people are dying. We still need to do something.

Q: Workshop on population and food being organized. You've said science and technology can fix our problem. Actually more complicated than this. Sharing of food is a big problem. Optimum Population Trust in UK claims potential to sustain 2 billion people. Population issue and just distribution, plus technology, are necessary to cope with issue.

A: Food has long been the handmaiden of Canada. If we can't move food across borders, then we can't help world from a distribution point of view.

– Political solutions are needed. It helps if you have enough food to begin with. If there isn't enough food, there will be no equitable answer.

– Adding more high-protein diets to world, while not expanding cultivation. Those things can be addressed, though intensification not the full answer. Upcoming crop failure will be the greatest bout of starvation at one time ever seen.

– Global warming has lengthened growing seasons, though global warming could be bad in future.

Q: Power of science in Malawi – could it have just been a policy shift? Second question, dichotomy: issue between romantic aesthetic farming, and on other side of debate, science. Is there no value in organic food movement besides the romantic ideal?

A: The only value system isn't just food production.

– Exemption under Canada Pension Plan for old-order Mennonites. Eent to bureaucrats, and leaders of Amish and Mennonites. Identified which families involved, and it happened because it was right.

– Diversity is necessary (associated with organic movement).

– 200 years ago we didn't know what fertilizer was needed. Potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus, applied appropriately, will grow plants better. This was one of greatest breakthroughs in human history.

– Malawi: when chemicals were applied, broke through starvation. Rarity in sub-Saharan Africa, a great leader.

Q: Canada can export more to meet demand of high protein diets internationally. Increasing protein diets require much more water and land. Does this relate more to vegetarian diet because of water and land consequences of high protein?

A: 6:1 protein ratio. Vegetarians can get protein from soybeans. Poultry very efficient.

– Wheat requires enormous amount of land.

– Irrigated pasture land in Brazil: you don't produce that much protein, but with soybeans you have magic bullet. You've got to use drip-feed irrigation – problem with irrigation is that it's been inefficient.

– India doing wonderful work on this.

Q: Population limit on earth. 9 billion people, fed, means that many more having babies later on.

A: Paul Erlich bet that the population of Europe would shrink. Can't operate social security systems with that.

– Biggest single reason for current financial crisis is that numbers were based on new home buyers coming in – and there weren't enough new buyers. Letting anybody buy a home caused crisis.

– Shrinking population happens in an advanced, technological society so it's not a concern that we'll have 9 billion people.

Q: Potato blight isn't killed by cold. Organic potatoes are actually surviving better this year, and chemicals are not killing the blight for other farmers. Green revolution: if it's a success, why are farmers in India killing themselves because not producing as much as used to? And there is currently no vaccine for malaria. Pills, yes.

A: Corn behind this year. We can't take for granted benign growing conditions. climate change will affect disease.

– India: shipped water down to southern Rajistan. The pipes were accesses – water shortages are the real cause of the suicides.

Q: Global food policy. Market and non-market solutions?

A: Have to help create markets where none exist. Don't ban use of non-market technology. Milton Friedman says democracy has been affected by vested interests. Farm subsidies have grown over time. The gap is closing.

– Ethanol doesn't come from agriculture community. If we can't get interprovincial solutions, hard to find that internationally.

Q: Consequence of having one part of world able to choose GM or organic, and another part not. What are the consequences of that?

A: Inadequate rainfall.

– Average production increasing in US. 98% of US corn is GM seeds, which is close to monopoly. EU politicians are preventing Africa from getting GM.

– Talking on cell phones and driving is a higher risk to us than eating GMOs. Should we ban that too?

Q: Canada has so much. What's the problem? Environment, carbon emissions are going up. What's going to make us change?

A: If we only served Canadians we'd be poor. NAFTA has been a boon for Ontario.

– We have to lower food prices to help affordability, encourage young people to go into farming. The year is coming when we'll have crop failures.

– Farmland being bought up around the world. This is not the right way to fix the problem. We should do a better job of preparing for something to go wrong.

– Market-based solutions – that's how you get science out there.

Q: What element will we run out of first renewing the earth?

A: Natural gas fertilizer; Saskatchewan has 250 years supply of potash. Phosphorous is more of a problem. Most of these deposits come from old bones, and this is likely the first problem to show up. Recycling will be necessary – we'll have to develop it.

Q: Diverse demands for food. Lack of transparency in its production. People want to know about processes used to make food, and want to make informed decisions. Lack of transparency in labelling so people can make right decisions according to pocketbooks and transparency.

A: Full disclosure is important. Food industry done a poor job about this. It's an aspect of democracy, helping to create a distribution system. Making best possible decisions. Financial industry started handing out 800-page prospectus. What is disclosed is greater, but not always read. But yes, would support a GMO labeling law.

Q: Indigenous people can identify 1,200 plants in some areas of current Mexico. We can't suggest that people in the North are more advanced and somehow that southern people are unsophisticated.

A: Dogmas: this is old, and it's good; and this is new, and it's better. No dogmas. The evidence is that in the industrial world we've expanded food production, and live longer. We've got to take knowledge from wherever we can get it. We can't abandon science and go back to dark ages.

Q: Why is feeding countries with surplus food so wrong?

A: Famine and crop failures we can provide for. But we can't have urban population taking needs of rural. Where woman are educated and given control of agriculture, you get lower birth rate and more progress.