Publications

Union Farmer Newsletter:

February 2021

In this issue …

Save our Seed! Do the CFIA seed survey today!

Farmland concentration a growing problem in Canada, warns report – by Lois Ross

Ranchers, First Nations unite against Rocky Mountain coal mining – by Steve Edgerton

 

Save our Seed! Do the CFIA seed survey today

By Cathy Holtslander, NFU Director of Research and Policy

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) launched a “needs assessment survey” on January 28 as part of the federal government’s Seed Regulatory Modernization process. The survey is open until March 15, 2021. It asks farmers and others in the seed sector for input on existing regulations and the changes being considered. There are questions on labelling, grading and seed standards, imports, variety registration and alternative service delivery (i.e. privatization of regulatory functions). The results of this survey will be considered when the Seed Regulatory Modernization Working Group (SRM-WG) makes its recommendation to the CFIA for amendments to the Seeds Act Regulations.

We urge all NFU members to fill in the survey, and to encourage friends and neighbours to participate as well. The CFIA has been overly influenced by the Seed Synergy collaboration, and the SRM-WG appears to be weighted towards those who support increasing privatization and corporate control. Farmers who buy, save and plant seeds and depend on effective public-interest seed regulations for their livelihoods now have the opportunity to use this survey to influence the process.

 Background

 Today’s farmers have always operated within the current regulatory framework – it is our “normal” and it provides a strong foundation for our food system. While it may seem natural and permanent, it is now seriously at risk. In response to the Seed Synergy lobby and the corporate-led Economic Strategy Table for Agri-Food recommendations, the federal government has agreed to open up all of the seed regulations for a complete overhaul.

The Seeds Act and its Regulations were established in the early 20th century to:

  • Protect farmers from unscrupulous seed dealers
  • Establish standards for germination and purity, and prevent proliferation of noxious weeds and crop diseases through seed grade tables
  • Regulate imported seed
  • Provide a trustworthy mechanism to supply new varieties to farmers via pedigreed seed production and certification
  • Build, maintain, and protect the value of Canadian agricultural products for farmers and end-users with an evidence-based and transparent variety registration process
  • Ensure continuous improvement by requiring new varieties to meet or exceed performance of check varieties in each growing region
  • Ensure farmers can easily get relevant and meaningful information about the seed they use

Since the late 1990s the “seed industry” (defined as the multinational seed companies, their investors and clients – not farmers) has been lobbying to increase their profitability and control over seed. The NFU and our allies have mounted strong campaigns to protect farmers’ seed rights, and we have had many successes along the way. Nevertheless, the corporate seed lobby has made gains with the UPOV ’91 Plant Breeders Rights legislation; and some of our Seeds Act Regulations have been weakened through amendments that make it easier to de-register older varieties that are not covered by Plant Breeders Rights, and allow new varieties with fewer quality requirements. The federal government has also been off-loading some of it regulatory roles and functions, such as seed crop inspection and seed analysis, by privatizing them under the auspices of “alternative service delivery”.

The multinational seed, biotech and chemical corporations — and those who are aligned with them – seek to redesign the seed regulatory system so they can cut corners on quality, turn regulatory services into business opportunities and force farmers to pay higher prices for seed. To counter their push, we need to create pressure to maintain our public interest seed regulations that work for farmers. We can send that message loud and clear through the CFIA’s needs assessment survey.

Please make sure complete your survey before March 15. Link to the survey here: https://tinyurl.com/y5h2ddjv

For more information about the NFU’s Save Our Seed campaign, visit https://www.nfu.ca/campaigns/save-our-seed/

 

 

Farmland concentration a growing problem in Canada, warns report

By Lois Ross

The first months of a new year are a good time to reflect on where we have been and how to do things differently going forward. And of course, being in the midst of the second wave of this pandemic should also help put a few things into perspective.

As part of this exercise, you may want to consider reading a report recently published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

Titled Concentration Matters: Farmland Inequality on the Prairies, it is filled with important data regarding the loss of family farms and increasing land concentration on the Prairies.

COVID-19 has brought to light huge gaps in our food system, particularly in the conditions of migrant farm labour, but also in the meat processing industry. These examples of extreme concentration have been documented in this column, and are also mentioned in the CCPA’s new report.

Concentration Matters argues that the vulnerabilities this pandemic has highlighted in the Canadian food production system are a wake-up call, one that should lead to policies that discourage land concentration and its serious impact on the production and control of food.

The authors note: “COVID-19 is giving us the opportunity to, once and for all, move away from a bigger is better, production-maximizing, export-oriented, input-overdependent and climate-change-generating  agriculture. Instead, now is the time to get on with the important task of building food sovereignty by creating more diversified, resilient, people-centred food systems that foster local/regional supply chains, close ties between farmers and eaters, more equitable distribution of food producing resources, and ecological sustainability.”

The paper goes on to detail the ever-increasing concentration of land ownership on the Prairies, and how, while the loss of family farms is constant and occurring rapidly, the concentration of land is happening even more quickly than the loss of family farms.

The report details the changing ownership and control over Prairie farmland, and how this restructuring of Prairie agriculture is increasing inequality. Just as over the past decades many small businesses have disappeared and given way to big box stores often owned by distant, transnational corporations, the same is now also happening to land owned by family farmers. Concentration Matters makes important links between concentration of farmland and rural depopulation — if not directly, definitely by implication.

More than 70 per cent of Canada’s agricultural land is located in the three Prairie provinces where the loss of family farms is most evident. That said, all provinces have seen a marked decline in farms since 1966, with Canada having lost close to half of its farms since then.

Meanwhile, the really telling story at this point in our agrarian history is that even these startling numbers actually understate the immensity of the loss.

According to the authors of Concentration Matters:

“These farm-loss rates, rapid and concerning as they are, actually understate the magnitude of the problem because the rate of farmland concentration is running ahead of the rate of farm loss. Since 1966, Canada has lost half of its farms, but the number of farmers who control the vast majority of land is far smaller than the numbers above suggest.”

In other words, the real story of land concentration is only told when you analyze the size of farms* alongside the loss of farms operations. For example, in Saskatchewan in 2016, 45 per cent of smaller farm operations (those under 1,000 acres) farmed less than 10 per cent of the land. Meanwhile, eight per cent of larger farm operations (those over 5,000 acres) farmed 38 per cent of Saskatchewan farmland. The average farm size of that eight per cent of farm operations was more than 9,382 acres — or around 15 square miles — but many were much larger. The figures show very similar trends in Alberta and Manitoba.

Not surprisingly, the larger Prairie farms are also collecting a much larger share of farm income, with smaller farmers struggling with much smaller amounts. For example, farms larger than 10,000 acres had average net incomes of $820,000 (before depreciation of equipment, buildings, etc.). These farms make up two per cent of all Prairie farmers, but take home 15 per cent of the net income. Meanwhile, farms smaller than 1,000 acres had average net incomes of $34,000 (before depreciation). These smaller farmers make up 53 per cent of all Prairie farms, but take home only 18 per cent of net incomes or revenue. Averages can be deceiving, so while some net incomes were well above $820,000, others were well below $34,000.

But land concentration also has impacts that many might not consider initially. The report details these as well. For example, younger farmers or new farmers start with smaller farms. How does the decreasing numbers of small farms affect the future for farm entrants?

Can new small farmers compete with those who own much larger farms and receive a much larger share of farm income? Do farm operators backed by large land holdings or by private or corporate investors borrow more easily and have the ability to drive up the price of land with their purchasing power? Does investment or purchasing of lands by larger operators or outside investors drive up the price of land, making it doubly hard for new farmers to gain a toehold?

The answers to these questions in part lies with the loss of young farmers in Canada. In the three Prairie provinces, fully 70 per cent of young farmers have been lost since 1991. As the report notes, “the reduction in the number of small farms, the concentration of farmland and farm income into fewer and fewer large operations, and barriers to entry created by rising land prices all make it more difficult for young and new farmers to enter agriculture.”

The report also analyzes statistics from across Canada. The authors estimate that less than three-tenths-of-one-per cent of Canadians — about 94,000 people — own half of this country’s (privately owned) food-producing acreage. Those farms may be operated by family farmers — but they are a very small percentage of family farmers.

Concentration Matters is filled with important data, explanations related to the structure of Prairie farmland, and the impact of losing farms and land concentration on communities and consumers. While it does not contain specific policy solutions to address land concentration, hopefully in the future there will be a sequel to this report that does.

The report does, however, have a few stark reminders. One is that agricultural land ownership is not just a farm issue; it is an issue that affects us all because it affects food supply, how our population is distributed across the country, employment, and much more.

Concentration Matters calls for “an extensive public debate about access to and control over farmland.”

The report concludes: “Federal and provincial policies that ensure a more equitable distribution of access to and control of Canada’s food-producing lands can form part of a larger effort to counter income and wealth inequality, help retain local democratic control of our economy and polity, tackle the climate crisis head-on, and build stronger and more resilient food systems that can better survive in times of pandemics and other disruptions.”

I couldn’t agree more. This report is well worth the read… as this pandemic gives us food for thought in 2021.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. This article was originally published on rabble.ca where her column “At the farm gate” discusses issues that are key to food production in Canada and internationally. Lois is an NFU Associate Member and one-time youth member, born into a isouthern Saskatchewan farm family.

 Concentration Matters: Farmland Inequality on the Prairies by Darrin Qualman, Annette Aurélie Desmarais, André Magnan and Mengistu Wendimu is available at https://www.nfu.ca/publications/concentration-matters-farmland-inequality-on-the-prairies/

 

 

Ranchers, First Nations unite against Rocky Mountain coal mining

By Steve Edgerton

 On June 1st, 2020, with no public consultation, Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) rescinded the province’s 44-year-old Coal Policy, ending the ban on open-pit coal mining on the ecologically sensitive eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The UCP opened 1.4 million hectares for potential mountaintop removal open-pit coal mining by ending protection on highly protected Category 2 land. Six proposed mines are already undergoing regulatory review.

Alberta’s Coal Policy was created in 1976 after four years of consultations and over 300 submissions from Albertans. It was designed to avoid boom-and-bust projects that are ultimately detrimental to Albertans. It mandated thorough environmental reviews and reclamation plans along with high royalty rates. Its explicit goal was to protect the watersheds, the land, and the ecological integrity that Alberta relies on for water, agriculture, and recreation.

Opposition to coal mining on the eastern slopes has made allies of ranchers, First Nations, conservation groups, mayors, and country music stars. Public outcry began to swell in mid-January: over 100,000 people signed the petition protesting the UCP’s actions. As pressure mounted, the government announced it would cancel 11 coal leases covering 1800 hectares.

This cancellation represents 0.02% of the 420,000 hectares under existing coal leases. Importantly, it has no bearing on the six open-pit coal mines under review, which the UCP show no intention of reversing. Alberta’s Energy Minister Sonya Savage said: “Coal development remains an important part of the Western Canadian economy… This decision has no impact on existing coal projects currently under regulatory review.”

While the economic value of open-pit coal mining to Albertans has been heavily questioned, its threats to water quality, grazing land, and riparian habitats are undeniable. Two decades after the closure of the Gregg River and Luscar coal mines in the Jasper foothills, selenium levels still exceed those considered safe to aquatic life by four times in the Gregg River, and nine times in Luscar Creek.

First Nations in the Crowsnest Pass region are concerned about the environmental degradation and destruction of sacred landscapes from the proposed mountaintop removal mines.

The Kainai/Blood Tribe stated: Kainai has a connection to the Crowsnest Pass region that dates back more than ten thousand years. The headwaters of the Oldman River Basin are sacred to the Blackfoot Nations and their way of life. Kainai is deeply concerned that without a rigorous assessment of cumulative impacts and robust protection of river basins, the approval of mining in formerly protected Category 2 lands will be an environmental disaster that cannot be undone.

These newly proposed coal mines will pollute and increasingly strain watersheds that irrigate 40% of Alberta’s agricultural land and provide drinking water to two million Albertans. They will also compromise the premiere grazing lands that the province is famous for, threatening the livelihoods of ranchers. These irreversible losses are precisely what the now-cancelled Coal Policy was designed to prevent.

In a judicial review of the decision by the Court of Queen’s Bench in January 2021, two ranching families argued the coal mines threaten not only their livelihoods, but the integrity of Alberta’s endangered native grasslands, and will further stress water allocations in a drought prone region. The Siksika, Kainai, and Bearspaw First Nations asserted the developments will have a detrimental effect on their ability to practice their Treaty rights and source healthy water for reserve lands. Because of a complete and intentional lack of public consultation, they hope the court will rule that rescinding the Coal Policy was illegal and order the government to reinstate it before holding full consultations.

Regardless of the court’s decision, the rescission of the Coal Policy is deeply unpopular. Public pressure must continue to push for its reinstatement, and for the UCP to prioritize the long-term sustainability of Alberta’s watersheds, grasslands, ranching, and its people.

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Take action! Visit https://protectalbertawater.ca/ for resources to help you write to your MLA and MP, sign petitions, and support efforts to reinstate the Coal Policy.  See also: National Farmers Union Opposes Alberta Open-Pit Coal Mines at https://www.nfu.ca/national-farmers-union-opposes-alberta-open-pit-coal-mines/

Steve Edgerton is the NFU’s Alberta Climate Change Coordinator. When not working to build a more sustainable and resilient agricultural system, he is likely out exploring the Rockies, savouring the singular beauty of his home province.

 

 

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