National Farmers Union brief to the Agriculture and Agri-Food Committee
Study on the Next Agricultural Policy Framework
Presented by Stewart Wells, December 8, 2016
I am appearing here today to relate the views of the National Farmers Union (NFU) regarding one of the areas within the National Policy Framework (NPF) that is under consideration—specifically the area of “social license” or “public trust”.
A document called the Calgary Statement, produced in July of 2016, includes the following statement:
“The NPF will continue to encourage and support collaborative sector efforts to enhance public trust by:
- Examining how government programming can help reinforce confidence and public trust in the sector; …
- Sharing the story of the importance of the sector and the modern, responsible and sustainable practices it uses.”
The NFU recommends that the Government of Canada be extremely cautious when interpreting these phrases, and even more cautious if considering spending taxpayer dollars in such efforts. The NFU’s position is that it is better to build confidence and public trust by requiring more independent and government testing of products in order to provide real transparency: proper regulation is desirable and necessary.
We do not believe that it would be in the best interests of the Government, farmers or Canadians if the Government was to end up funding the efforts that are simply trying to maintain the status quo via public relations campaigns, issuing misleading statements or undermining other production methods.
The NFU believes that the Government has a major role to play in promoting confidence in our food system by providing proper regulation, transparency and testing. But given the history of groups that have been advocating for their particular version of “social license”, and the continuous change in what society understands to be “best practices”, there is an extreme risk that the Calgary Statement regarding public trust could lead to the Government funding messages that are not always true and frequently exaggerated. Worse yet, it could lead to the Government itself issuing false claims.
First, let’s look at the evolution of “best practices”. Our farm in Saskatchewan has been operated by three generations of the same family since 1911. During that time, and using what were the “best practices” of the day, our family has applied to the soil or to the crop many chemicals including: arsenic insecticide, mercury-based insecticide, dieldrin, and lindane—all of which have since been banned. And just a couple of weeks ago Health Canada decided to ban one type of neonicotinoid insecticide. See page 3 for a photograph of one of the “best practices” of the 1960s and 70s.
And the reason for the evolution of the status of these chemicals from “best practice”, to controversial, to their subsequent banning? In every case it has been insufficient testing prior to their introduction. For instance, very little testing was done, and apparently done only by the corporate owner, on the recently banned neonic when it was introduced. With a spike in independent testing in the last couple of years, the insecticide’s now-documented negative impacts are sufficient for the product to be banned.
In many cases, the notion of “social license”, or “public trust”, is being promoted to blindly protect current practices instead of providing extra transparency and/or safety for the public or the environment.
Those misusing the concept of “social license” or “public trust” make several common claims, such as:
- I’m a farmer, and I would never do anything that would hurt my land or the plants/animals on that land.
Our family would have stood by that claim on every banned substance that was used on our farm over the past 105 years. We trusted the regulations and companies selling them at the time.
- I need to feed a hungry world.
That rationale has been found wanting. Inadvertently destroying the natural world undermines our ability to produce in the long run. Currently we are producing 3200 calories per day per person, more than anyone can possibly eat. But we have 1.2 billion people who are food insecure, 1.5 billion people who are overfed, and too much of our food is nutritionally disfigured.
- The current technology (crops/chemicals) allow us to use less chemical overall.
The September 29, 2016 Western Producer reported that “A large American study has found genetically modified crops have dramatically increased the amount of herbicides applied to soybeans. As well, data from Alberta suggest that GM crops have had an even greater impact in Western Canada, as the amount of herbicide sold in the province nearly doubled from 2003 to 2013.”
As well, at least one group, SaskCanola, has already used Growing Forward 2 (taxpayer money) to produce a video that makes false claims, pits farmers against other farmers, and criticizes consumers, all in the name of “social license”. Continuing or increasing the amount of taxpayer money used to fund these activities will not end well.
The Government’s role in testing/regulating and ensuring transparency will be undermined if it adopts a conflicting dual mandate. This dual mandate would mean “sharing the story of …modern, responsible and sustainable practices…” [excerpt from the Calgary Statement] – which can be interpreted as protecting the status quo – on one hand, while engaging in meaningful testing and transparency on the other hand.
Stewart WellsNational Farmers Union