John W. Warnock

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The Industrial Food System : from the Democratic Farm Movement to Corporate Control


Farmers Struggle with Marketing Boards

by John W. Warnock
The Western Producer
November 10, 2011


The political battle over the Canadian Wheat Board is certainly nothing new. We live in the world capitalist system where food is produced by farmers as long as they can make a profit and is distributed according to ability to pay. No matter how hard farmers work, as a rule they receive a declining share of the consumer’s food dollar. Canadian farmers have always known that when it comes to political and economic power, they cannot equal that of finance capital, the farm supply industry, and the food processing and distribution corporations.


Farmers and peasants the world over adopted various strategies to try to defend their interests. At first, where they were quite numerous, they formed political organizations and political parties. This worked to some degree but failed to halt the decline in their numbers. The alternative strategy was to form producer and consumer co-operatives, credit unions, farmer-owned processing industries, and marketing boards.


At the time of the Great Depression, throughout the Commonwealth governments passed legislation granting farmers the right to form marketing boards. Farm commodity organizations petitioned governments, referendums were held among producers, and where a majority opted to create a single desk marketing board, one was established. The democratic majority ruled: farmers were required to sell all of their product through the chosen board.


In 1934 R. B. Bennett’s Conservative Government passed legislation to enable the creation of marketing boards. In 1935 legislation was passed to establish the Canadian Wheat Board. The many federal-provincial disputes were ironed out in 1949 with the passage of the federal Agricultural Products Marketing Act.


B.C. Tree Fruits Created


In the Okanagan, where I was an orchardist, tree fruit growers first created co-op packing plants. But the corporate food distribution and processing companies just played one off against the other. The growers petitioned the provincial government, a referendum passed by a large majority, and the B.C. Tree Fruits Marketing Board (BCTF) was created, a single desk marketing system. The growers then created Sun Rype to try to break the food processing oligopoly.


However, BCTF was not a supply management board. There was no way they could control fruit imports being dumped into Canada from California and Washington. They were in a weak position when bargaining with the large food distribution corporations. Prices lagged behind costs. Most growers could not survive without the income their family earned from off farm jobs.


There have always been farmers who are liberal individualists, who resent the fact that they must follow the majority and sell their product through a single desk marketing board. In the Okanagan they were mostly the larger farmers who felt they had the ability to cherry pick the better markets and out compete their neighbours. They began to peddle their quality product to special markets, leaving the balance of their crop to be sold by the marketing board. BCTF had no ability to enforce the legal system. A number of farmers blamed the marketing board for the cost price squeeze, formed two organizations, and demanded that the provincial government end BCTF’s status as a single marketing desk.


The “fruit wars” came to a crisis point after Dave Barrett’s NDP government was elected in 1972. Dr. S. C. Hudson was chosen to do an economic analysis of the marketing system. He concluded that with 48% of sales going to the other provinces and 33% to the offshore markets, only a central desk marketing agency could “do a satisfactory job of selling the entire crop.” A referendum among growers was held in December 1973, and 62% voted to keep the existing single desk marketing system. However, the NDP government concluded that the majority was not strong enough, and they legislated the end to a compulsory board.


Tree Fruit Industry in decline


How did the tree fruit industry adjust to the change? The number of growers declined from a peak of 3,000 to roughly 500 commercial growers today. The acreage under tree fruit production has dropped significantly, from around 26,000 to 10,000 acres.


Okanagan farms are bought by wealthy people who have no interest in farming the land. Our 15 acre orchard sold a couple of years ago for $1.5 million, the fruit trees were removed, and after a few years grapes were planted. One of the neighbours of our other orchard sold his farm and the new owners cut down all the trees and let the grass grow; they just wanted a nice warm place to retire.


Other farmers switched to growing grapes, and there are now many small hobby grape growers and wine producers. Our co-op packing house has closed as it did not have enough tonnage to cover their costs. Most of the buildings have been torn down, and the land is up for sale. Run Rype, our growers' co-operative, was transformed into a private corporation.


The liberals argue that the changes do not matter. Canada does not need to produce fruits and vegetables as they can always be bought from the USA. There is no guarantee that the retention of BCTF as a single marketing desk would have prevented the demise of the tree fruit industry. But for family farmers who were too busy farming to have the time to sell their own product, the marketing board was a big help.

John W. Warnock is retired from teaching political economy and sociology at the University of Regina and is author of The Politics of Hunger: the Global Food Industry. Before taking this teaching position he and his family were commercial fruit growers in the Okanagan Valley.



The End of Industrial Agriculture?


by John W. Warnock

Leader Post
August 5, 2008


Statistics Canada reports that large scale farms are more efficient, bringing in more revenues and capturing higher profits than smaller family farms. This has been a trend for some time. Sylvain Charlebois, an economist at the University of Regina, is not alone when he argues that economies of scale are key and that the province should encourage large scale farms.

However, this dominant view of economists, agriculturalists and government officials is once again under attack. This past April the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development produced a different perspective. In a study sponsored by the World Bank and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, 400 scientists from 100 countries concluded that “The old paradigm of industrial, energy-intense and toxic agriculture is a concept of the past.” The report, endorsed by 54 countries at a meeting in Johannesburg, concluded that “small-scale, agro-ecological farming will be more effective at meeting today’s challenges.”

The most serious problems include the persistence of poverty and ill health, the development of food shortages, and the growing gap in wealth and income between the rich and the poor. Agricultural trade liberalization has had an adverse impact on the poorer countries where farmers cannot compete with highly subsidized agriculture in the Northern countries. The scientists found that the widespread use of pesticides and manufactured fertilizers has degraded the natural resource base of food-producing lands and waters. Genetically engineered crops have contributed to this deterioration.

The IAASTD study concludes that the alternative is “investing in agro-ecological and organic farming, ensuring poor farmers have control over resources, creating more equitable trade agreements, and increasing local participation in policy-formation and rural livelihoods worldwide.”

The Green Revolution was designed to bring western, industrial agriculture to the less developed countries. It emphasized improved but uniform genetic stock, irrigation, and the addition of pesticides and manufactured fertilizers. This began with new rice strains developed in the Philippines at the International Rice Research Institute. Governments supported the transformation. Yields rose but leveled off in the 1990s.

Today the IRRI is taking a different road. They have been studying the brown planthopper which is devastating rice production in Vietnam. Their fear is that the pest problem will spread to Thailand and other rice-growing countries. Their research demonstrates conclusively that the massive outbreak of this pest is a direct result of the use of pesticides. Where farmers have stopped using pesticides, normal production has returned.

Today the IRRI is encouraging rice farmers to abandon the industrial agriculture model that they promoted in the past. Their solution is to reject monoculture, introduce crop rotations, plant diverse strains of rice and shift to ecological agriculture.

Industrial agriculture is also running into the two major problems all of us face. One is Peak Oil. The abundant, easy-to-extract sources of oil have disappeared, new sources of oil are more costly to exploit, and world demand is steadily increasing. The result is increasing prices for petroleum products.

The industrial agricultural system requires a major fossil fuel energy subsidy. Numerous studies were done on this problem after the 1973 increase in oil prices. In North America the industrial food system, from the farm to the retail store, utilizes 10 calories of energy for each calorie of energy produced at the farm level. The average food product in the supermarket has traveled over 2,000 miles. How can this continue?

The second problem we face is climate change. As any farmer knows, climate is the most basic concern, and stability is required. Climate change is already producing a less predictable climate with more crisis events. Droughts and floods are expected to increase.

Some believe that global warming and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will enhance crop production. The recent report done by Natural Resources Canada, an overview of existing scientific data, concludes that this would be offset by the reduced availability of water and increased pest problems. Droughts, combined with industrial agriculture, result in toxic pollution of water resources.

The strategy for adaptation to climate change for Saskatchewan would include a shift from industrial agriculture to smaller, more diversified farm units, emphasizing ecological agriculture. Almost all studies of the impact of climate change on agriculture propose a major shift to food production for local use. It may well be that the era of energy-intensive industrial agriculture is coming to an end.


John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist, former farmer, and author of The Politics of Hunger: The Global Food System.



Helping out at Evan's farm



Is Ethanol a Green Energy Strategy? Notes on the Issue in Saskatchewan


by John W. Warnock

October 2002

Prepared for Saskatchewan Eco-Network


For the past few years there has been some public debate in Saskatchewan on the issue of building fermentation and distilling plants to produce ethanol which would be used as a mix with gasoline for vehicles. It has been assumed that the feedstock for ethanol would be feed grade wheat produced by Saskatchewan farmers. This has been promoted as part of “green energy” and as a way to reduce the level of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. It has also been promoted as a “value added” industry which would help to diversify rural Saskatchewan. Farmers would benefit by having another market for grain, one which would bring them higher returns as transportation costs would be reduced.

The major public debate has centered around the argument by David Pimentel and his group of researchers at Cornell University at Ithaca, N.Y. that growing grains for the production of ethanol is not “energy efficient”: the fossil fuel input into the growing of corn (which is the feedstock used in the United States), transportation, and then the manufacturing process exceeded the energy which came out of the process in the form of ethanol.

The other debate has centred around the subsidies required to make ethanol competitive in price with gasoline. Ethanol cannot presently be manufactured for less than the cost of extraction of oil and refining it into gasoline. Thus, for example, in July 2002 it is reported that ethanol in the United States costs $1.00 per gallon compared to $.80 for gasoline. Thus there are a variety of subsidies provided in the U.S. by both federal and state governments. Most recently, the U.S. Farm Bill gives each new ethanol plant a free bushel of corn for every 2.5 bushels it buys on the open market. In Saskatchewan, the NDP government has removed provincial taxes from ethanol to be used in gasoline and has passed legislation which will mandate the use of SK ethanol in all gasoline sold in the province. Normally, 10% of the blend is ethanol, and it can reach 15% in diesel fuel. Some have objected to the subsidy, loss of government revenues, and the prospects of being forced to buy ethanol-mixed fuel.

There is also a deeper political issue here. Pimentel and his group at Cornell have been promoting sustainable agriculture for many years. In the 1970s they produced studies showing the energy inefficiency of the North American food system, which is heavily subsidized by fossil fuel use. They have done research on the disappearance of food lands and have advocated government regulations to preserve high quality food land resources. They have promoted ecological and organic agriculture and have campaigned against the use of pesticides and industrial fertilizers.

In addition, they are close to the rural sociology program at Cornell University. This is the most radical program in the United States and is well known for its critique of capitalist agriculture and agribusiness. They were the first to mobilize opposition to biotechnology.

Thus part of the attack on Pimentel is based in historic opposition to this Cornell group by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the mainstream agricultural colleges, and the conservative farm groups like the U.S. Farm Bureau.

The other main issue, of course, is the choice the NDP government made to virtually give a monopoly in ethanol production in Saskatchewan to Groe Companies of Denver, Colorado. This has apparently pre-empted a number of local initiatives in the province.

So what I have done below is outline the major disputes on this issue. The New Green Alliance would normally be expected to back ethanol production for a variety of reasons, beginning with the fact that it is a form of biomass energy production. But as ethanol production is developing in Saskatchewan, the issue is not so clear cut.


Is Ethanol a Green Fuel?


Promoters of ethanol argued that it is a green fuel because is uses a renewable energy source. Using current farm production techniques corn and wheat result in a positive energy balance. The USDA’s new study says that it has a 1.2 ratio, which means that the end product (ethanol) embodies 20% more energy than was used in the entire production process.

Ethanol can improve air quality, and it reduces the green house gasses when burned as a motor vehicle fuel. Ethanol is also promoted because it replaces harmful additives presently used in gasolines (at least in the US): MTBE and MMT. Ethanol is relatively non toxic when compared to fossil fuels and these additives. Proponents also insist that it is an “octane enhancer”. It is also claimed that ethanol can serve as a “bridge fuel” for hydrogen fuel cells. In all, the industry has a “positive environmental image.”

There are a lot of sources on the Internet which promote the ethanol industry. There are many links identified on the Saskatchewan Eco-network web site. Pimentel and his associates and others are not keen on monoculture corn as it is grown in North America. They argue that corn production is most destructive of the soil and requires heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides. They continue to insist that it is the one major row crop that is not energy efficient, that it requires a fossil fuel subsidy. They also claim that the process of transporting grain, fossil fuel embodied in the plant and equipment, and fossil fuels used in manufacturing process result in a net energy loss. They also argue that ethanol only has 71% of the BTU of gasoline and requires more fuel to be used to cover the same distance.

As for ethanol as a fuel, Pimentel et al agree that it produces less carbon monoxide, but as much nitrous oxides as gasoline, and adds aldehydes and alcohol to the atmosphere, which are carcinogenic.

It should be noted that ethanol production is not a clean process. In October 2002 the U.S. EPA came down on the 12 plants in Minnesota for violations of the Clean Air Act, for exceeding the emission limits on volatile organic compounds, carbon dioxide emissions, contributing to ground level smog, and for excessive emission of nitrogen oxides. In a compromise settlement, the plants all agreed to install new equipment which would cost around $2 million. This action was forced by local citizen and environmental groups, as neither the state environmental authorities nor the EPA were willing to take action. (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, October 2, 2002)

There are the other important questions raised by Pimentel and his associates. Given the declining amount of good arable land on a world wide basis, the persistence of malnourished people, and the general decline in per capita food supplies, should good cropland be used to grow crops for fuel for automobiles? They say no. Pimentel argues that emphasis should be placed on improving vehicle mileage and shifting to other means of transportation. Fossil fuel consumption must be reduced if we are to stabilize the climate. The green message behind ethanol use, Pimentel et al argue, is that the continued expansion of automobile use in North America is all right. This sends the wrong message, they argue.

In July 2002 the USDA released a paper by Shapouri et al, “The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An update.” This can be found on the USDA web site in the section on biomass energy.


Pimentel’s position has been critiqued by the U.S. National Corn Growers Association, and can be found on their web site. It appears to me that the USDA study demonstrates that with the new more energy efficient production processes, ethanol production from corn is energy efficient in a short run sense. But it does not seem to me that this is the key question.

The U.S. ethanol industry


The United States is far ahead of Canada in developing the biomass energy industry. Government support for the industry began in the 1970s as a way to try to cope with growing dependence on importing oil. The U.S. now imports 65% of its oil, and in 20 years expects this to rise to 95%. Thus in 2000 the government-supported ethanol industry with 56 plants was producing 2 billion gallons of ethanol with sales of $2.5 billion.

Most of the U.S. plants are new-generation co-ops owned by farmers who deliver their own corn to the plant. Some are close to local feedlots which use the distillers grain by-product. But the newest plants are being designed to use cellulose-ethanol technology.

Nevertheless, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one of the biggest grain handling companies on the Canadian prairies, is the largest company in the industry and is reported to have 40% of the market. Yet the trend is towards small, local, farmer-owned co-operatives.

Despite government assistance, the profitability of ethanol plants is not guaranteed. For example, Minnesota Corn Processors (MCP) is a new generation co-op owned by 5,000 farmers from Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. This co-op has six percent of the market, the largest producer next to ADM. It has always been in financial difficulty, and nearly went bankrupt a few years ago. In August 2002 it was reported that members were voting on a proposal to sell the co-op to ADM. Dan Thompson, CEO of the co-op, stated: “So many ethanol plants are expanding or under construction that in the near term, ethanol production will far outstrip demand. MCP will not make any profits for the next three to five years.” (Minnesota Public Radio report, August 21, 2002, on line)

The Broe-Saskatchewan government plan is to build four ethanol plants with a total capacity of 400 million litres. The potential Saskatchewan market is set at around 130 million litres, with the remainder to be exported to the United States. Given that the U.S. industry is so closely tied to U.S. farmers, and given U.S. government protectionist impulses, the Saskatchewan Eco-Network, for one, questions whether the government isn’t being overly optimistic about potential exports to the U.S.


The developing biomass industry

The U.S. Department of Energy is promoting the use of trees and perennial grasses as the future feedstock for ethanol production. Their Bioenergy Feedstock Development Program has been conducting research, establishing tests, and actively supporting the introduction of new ethanol plants. The program focuses on the development of hybrid poplars, hybrid willows and switchgrass. It also is promoting the use of agricultural, forestry and municipal wastes, and recycled paper as feedstock for local plants in appropriate areas.

The new feedstock crops have greater environmental benefits as they are grown on marginal lands, improve water quality, support native wildlife, and increase soil conservation. These biomass crops promote the sequestering of carbon and require virtually no artificial fertilizer or pesticides. They are perennial plants and from an environmental perspective are much better than growing corn or wheat. The goal of USDOE is to have 42 million acres of switchgrass under production and contract by 2008.

The biomass perennials have a very high energy output compared to input. Oklahoma State University studies report that the total energy output for switchgrass is 4.4 compared to 1.2 for corn. This is a net energy gain of 334% for switchgrass over corn. Switchgrass works well as a feedstock for ethanol production. The present problem is developing a steady source of supply for future ethanol plants.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing that the 55 million acres of agricultural land that has been taken out of production under federal programs and planted to pasture will be converted to switchgrass. One acre of switchgrass or hybrid popular or willows can yield around 1,000 gallons of ethanol per year. Thus 35 million acres of this marginal land could produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol each year.

The U.S. Department of Energy has projected the development of the ethanol industry. Presently 90% of ethanol is from corn. By 2015 the U.S. expects to be producing 25 billion gallons of ethanol, with only around 3 billion gallons from corn. The major feedstock sources will be switchgrass, forest wastes, agricultural residues, and short-rotation wood products.

The major U.S. push is to switchgrass, a native grass on the tall-grass prairies. It can be grown and harvested for 10 years before it needs to be re-seeded. It is highly resistant to pests and plant diseases. In dry areas it grows to five or six feet tall. At maturity, its base it can reach 20 inches in diameter. It has deep roots (8 - 10 feet) and is highly resistant to drought and flooding.

Growing perennial feedstocks can be profitable. Iogen plans to pay farmers $35 per tonne for straw. Switchgrass produces between 6 and 8 tons per acre. It could produce more gross income per acre than wheat, and given that very little inputs are needed, the net gain could be substantial.

In the U.S. tests have demonstrated that switchgrass can be burned as a mix with coal in coal-fired generating plants, reducing emissions. Three varieties are being grown in North Dakota, two of which are native to South Dakota and one which is native to North Dakota. In Canada, a Montreal company has developed a stove to burn switchgrass pellets for home heating. The stove reduces energy costs by two-thirds. In New York State local utilities have joined to demonstrate that willows and forest residues can be used to co-fire generating plants with coal.

In Hawaii, a biomass gasification plant uses waste sugarcane to produce electricity, and a second plant is under construction which will use “low value hardwoods” as the feedstock. The USDOE is developing a project in Georgia to use wood waste to produce energy. Hybrid cottonwoods are being grown in Oregon for this purpose, and after six years are already 60 feet tall. USDOE estimate that wood wastes could provide as much as 20% of U.S. electricity needs.

BC International Corporation has an ethanol plant in Gridley, California which uses rice plant waste as a feedstock. In 2000 it sold its technology rights to a Japanese firm which will be constructing similar plants in Asia. The first plants will be using wastes from sugar production. BCI also has a plant in Louisiana which uses organic wastes.

Biomass and Ethanol in Saskatchewan

The Saskatchewan Energy Conservation and Development Agency examined the potential for biomass energy production. The Technology Group produced a study in November 1994: “Levelized Cost and Full Fuel-Cycle; Environmental Impacts of Saskatchewan’s Electric Supply Option.”

It identified biomass potential from crop residues and forages, waste wood, logging residues, fire kill wastes, and municipal wastes. At the time it was felt that energy from row crops was not energy efficient or good use of crop land. But it estimated that crop residues and forages could produce an equivalent of 850 megawatts of energy. Biogas would be an excellent source of energy for northern Saskatchewan, and there was no need to pipe natural gas to the north. Electrical power in the north could be produced from waste wood and fire kill wastes.

The NDP government had many options available for biomass energy development. The choice it made for the ethanol industry appears to have blocked other options being developed.

(a) Broe Companies. On October 10, 2002 the NDP government announced their partnership with Broe Companies of Denver. Three plants will be built at Belle Plaine, Tisdale and Melville. A fourth plant was being considered for Shaunavon. Broe will put up 60% of the capital and the Saskatchewan government will put up the other 40%. It is hoped that other interests would build a cattle feedlot near the Belle Plaine plant to use the high-protein distillers grain byproduct.

Broe Companies is a Denver-based real estate company which invests in residential property, retirement homes, and private health services. In 1997 they bought the Hudson Bay RR and facilities at the Port of Churchill. Their subsidiary, OmniTrax, also owns Carlton Trail Railway, a short line RR near Prince Albert. They have no experience in agribusiness.

According to media reports, Broe Industries came to the NDP government and made the proposal. It is not generally known why they insisted that the government put up 40% of the capital. But this seems to guarantee that the investment will not completely fail if the market is not good or that persistent drought makes it difficult to find low cost feedstock. They refused to rule out importing corn from the United States. Surprisingly, this government-financed project has been strongly supported by the Leader Post and its “free enterprise is always best” reporter and commentator, Bruce Johnstone.

No one seems to know why the NDP government chose this company over the other options. One reason may be that they wished to have a project in the works before the upcoming election expected in June 2003, and the other options likely would not have been under construction by that time.

(b) PoundMaker Ag Ventures Ltd. The one existing ethanol plant in Saskatchewan is an operation near Lanigan established by 200 farmers and business people over ten years ago. It produces 12 million litres of ethanol fuel per year from grain and feeds 55,000 head of cattle. It was supported in its development by the Saskatchewan Research Council and the University of Saskatchewan.

(c) Weyburn-Commercial Alcohols. The city of Weyburn was well on its way to create a 30-million litre a year plant at the old whiskey distillery that it now owns. Commercial Alcohols of Toronto was one of the companies under negotiation to operate the plant, but they have now pulled out of the venture. No government capital was expected for this ethanol development. Mayor Don Schlosser denounced the Broe deal saying development should be by Canadian companies and there should be guarantees to use local grain. (Leader Post, May 29, 2002)

(d) Nokomis-Canadian Bio Energy Incorporated. An Alberta-based ethanol company, Canadian Bio Energy Inc. was negotiating with a community group at Nokomis to build an ethanol plant. The feasibility study had been completed and a business plan was under way. They indicated that they would not proceed with the Saskatchewan project if Crown Investment Corporation was going to support other projects. They are proceeding with a plant for Russell, Manitoba, which will start construction in spring 2003. (ACC News, May 28, 2002)

(e) Shaunavon development. Local political and business interests had been working on a plan for an ethanol plant with local businessmen and farmers. They were prepared to go ahead with the project without government financing or investment. The NDP government has suggested that it might still be possible to build a plant there with the involvement of Broe Companies. (Leader Post, May 30, 2002)

(f) Indian Head-Iogen Corporation. Iogen Corporation of Ottawa was planning to build an ethanol plant at Indian Head which would utilize straw as the feedstock. The U.S. Department of Energy has judged their bioethanol to be the cleanest fuel and process around, reducing greenhouse gas emissions 99% because it produces the fuel for the plant. This is not true of the grain based plants. Royal Dutch Shell has invested $46 million in the company to help it expand. However, the company was not going to start construction until late 2004. Since Iogen is also planning to build plants at Killarney, Manitoba and Vegreville, Alberta, it seems likely that they will drop their plans for Saskatchewan. (Western Producer, September 5, 2002)


Feedstock supply and price.


In a speech to The Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference in Saskatoon in September 2002, Martin Andreas of ADM stated that corn is by far a better feedstock for ethanol than any other grain, primarily because it produces significantly more starch. He projected a major increase in ethanol from corn after the passage of the new U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2002. This is a question of U.S. energy self sufficiency. (Western Producer, September 19, 2002)

A study by agricultural economists Daryl Kraft and James Rude for the Government of Manitoba questioned investment in ethanol plants. Because corn is the best row crop feedstock, and it’s price in the U.S. is subsidized, they expect that any new ethanol plants in Manitoba will utilize imported U.S. corn.

Because of the expansion of the livestock industry on the prairies over the past ten years, there is a deficit of feed grain right now in Manitoba and Alberta. Ethanol producers may lack feedstock supply. Grain prices may rise and make ethanol production unprofitable. In good years, Saskatchewan only has a “surplus” of 670,000 tons of feed grain to export. This could decline if drought becomes a normal phenomenon. Again, prices for feed grain would rise, undermining the profitability of ethanol or reducing the livestock herd. (Western Producer, October 3, 2002)

Presently, Saskatchewan produces around 14 million tonnes of cereal grains that could be used for ethanol feedstock. Ethanol plants producing 400 million litres per year would need 1.08 million tonnes of wheat feedstock per year. The NDP government says that the “ethanol industry must be export driven for maximum success and growth.”

What are the central issues that must be resolved?

Should the Green movement support expansion of ethanol production from cereals?

Should we be supporting ethanol production that is based on expansion of feedlots?

It seems logical for Greens to actively support perennial biomass production. This is only one small contribution to the the problem of greenhouse emissions and alternate energy.

Greens should support the Pimentel position on the importance of preserving good farm land for food production.

It seems like a Green policy to support introduction of biomass combustion mixed with coal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Saskatchewan, as a step in phasing out electricity from coal. Is this feasible?

Should Saskatchewan taxpayers be subsidizing ethanol production in order to export ethanol to the United States? This hardly seems like a Green production goal.

Biomass development could become a major industry in northern Saskatchewan for local energy development



Industrial Agriculture Comes to Saskatchewan

by John W. Warnock



In Harry P. Diaz, Joann Jaffe and Robert Stirling, eds.

Farm Communities at the Crossroads; Challenges and Resistance.                                  image

Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center,

University of Regina, 2003. pp. 303-323.
ISBN: 0397-6290-43



Industrial agriculture, sustainability and rural survival

Traditionally a farming system was judged to be efficient when it returned more energy than was expended. For example, on average slash and burn agriculture produced 16 calories of energy for every one expended. Traditional Chinese wet-rice farmers harvested 50 calories for every one consumed in the production process.

Industrial agriculture depends on a huge fossil fuel energy subsidy. On the farm level today, it takes on average three calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. When one adds in the cost of the processing, packaging, storage, distribution, and home preparation, it costs about ten calories of energy to put one calorie of food energy on the table. (Steinhart and Steinhart, 1974)

Today farmers do not produce fresh food for the local markets. Corporations manufacture and distribute food for an international market. The average product on the shelf in the Safeway store in Regina has travelled over one thousand miles. Not only is this system destructive to local rural communities, and unsustainable in ecological terms, it delivers food which is less nutritious and of poorer taste. Industrial agriculture also results in uniform products produced through a dangerous narrowing of the genetic diversity of plants and animals.


Costs of the present system

The problems we know in Saskatchewan are found throughout the system. The soil is depleted of organic matter and fertility from constant cropping. There is wind and water erosion. In 1997 Saskatchewan farmers allocated 15 percent of their farm operating costs to fertilizers as they try to compensate for decreasing fertility.

Between 1987 and 1993 pesticide use in North America increased by 78 percent, but pest problems remain as serious as ever before. Insects and plants we call weeds are constantly developing resistance to pesticides. Our water supplies are polluted by pesticides, fertilizers and effluent from intensive livestock operations. (Meeker-Lowrey, 1995; Lowe et al, 1996)

The move towards the industrial food system and large corporate-style farms also produces high social costs which must be born by the community. This is very evident in Saskatchewan. The population and economic base of rural society is undermined. Young people are forced to leave to find work. When rail lines are abandoned, and elevators shut down, small towns disappear and the increased cost of transportation is born by farmers. The destruction of highways by large trucks is paid for by higher local taxes.

It is an article of faith of those who are in the business of promoting the industrial food system that this is all the result of consumer demand. Yet critics point out that the food industry is the largest advertiser in North America, and product differentiation is a central marketing strategy of all the food processors. The corporate sector seeks to create the demand.


Biotechnology versus local, sustainable self reliance

No one could argue that the new biotechnology revolution is in any way the result of consumer demand. Numerous public opinion polls show majority opposition to genetic manipulation of food products. The agribusiness giants, and their allies in the Canadian and American governments, are doing everything possible to defeat consumer and producer demands for the labelling of all food products which include GM products. A poll by Novartis in February 1997 in the United States found that 93 percent wanted genetically engineered foods labelled. Recently, Monsanto hired Burston-Marstellar to conduct a media advertising blitz in Europe to try to undermine strong public opposition to biotechnology. (Smooth Facade, 1998)

But this restructuring of food and agriculture has not gone without opposition. It has become a world-wide battle, with popular groups aligned on an international level. At the meetings of the WTO there was strong opposition from many governments from Third World countries. Non-governmental organizations representing small farmers, environmentalists, indigenous peoples and consumer groups have mounted a concerted attack on this new regime. The conflict was prominent at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992, the meetings surrounding the Biodiversity Convention, the 1996 World Food Summit, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Conference on Food Security in November 1997.

At the World Food Summit in Rome in November 1996 over 800 non-governmental organizations from 107 countries were present to demand food security and rights for small farmers. One of the strongest voices there was Via Campesina, a movement of farm workers, peasant, farm and indigenous people's organizations. The National Farmers Union plays a leadership role in this organization. (Machipisa, 1996)

There are many concerns about biotechnology, and in particular, creating new plants and animals by moving genes across historic species barriers. The general public is concerned about the long term effects of genetic manipulation. There is opposition from consumer, environmental and farming groups who see it as a continuation of unsustainable agriculture. There is very strong opposition in Third World countries. (See Shiva, 1997; Kloppenburg and Burrows, 1996; Regal, 1995; Wills, 1995)

A number of international organizations have led the resistance to genetically engineered foods, including Consumers International, Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), the Indigenous Peoples' Biodiversity Network, the Institute for Sustainable Development, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), and Third World Network. The Campaign for Food Safety leads international protests on World Food Day.

In Europe, where the opposition to biotechnology is strongest, resistance has moved to civil disobedience and direct action. In Britain Earth First and other groups have destroyed corporate test fields. Demonstrations and similar direct actions have taken place on continental Europe, led by European Farmers' Co-ordination. (Vidal, 1998)

In Canada, the campaign against biotechnology is led by RAFI, the Canadian Environmental Law Association, the Canadian Environmental Network, the National Farmers Union and several provincial organizations. Most notable is the British Columbia Biotechnology Circle. A Biotechnology Working Group has been formed by the Saskatchewan Eco-network.


North American resistance

In North America, the organized resistance to the new food regimes is most advanced in the United States. Organizations representing family farmers sought out environmental and consumer groups to build community opposition. One is the National Coalition for Family Farms and the Environment, which has taken the lead in opposing the expansion of corporate pig factories. They are being backed by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Humane Farming Association.

In a number of states, these organizations have used the initiative to introduce legislation or amendments to the state constitutions to block or control corporate farms. The strongest to date is the constitutional amendment adopted in Nebraska in 1982. Eleven other states have passed some form of anti-corporate farming laws by the initiative process. (Center for Rural Affairs, 1995; Strange, 1997)

In the November 1998 U.S. federal election initiatives which amended state constitutions were passed in Colorado and South Dakota. The Colorado initiative put strict restriction on factory hog farms, and the South Dakota initiative prohibits non-family farms from owning livestock. Because of the South Dakota campaign, Tyson Foods and Murphy Family Farms, two of the largest integrated hog operations in the United States, cancelled plans to move into South Dakota, and Minnesota Corn Co-op/ADM cancelled plans to build a 30,000 head feedlot. (NRDC, 1998)

Just south of the Saskatchewan border, the Western Organization of Resource Councils has emerged as a leading force for rural community organization. Originally formed by ranchers, WORC today is a federation of 42 citizens' groups in North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. They have led a fight against pollution by mining interests and destruction of federal lands, demanded stronger environmental regulations for land and water, and pushed for higher royalty taxes on oil and mining. They denounced the proposed national organic foods standards as "a wholesale and inexcusable sellout by the USDA to corporate agribusiness." (WORC, 1998)

But WORC is best known for it campaign against monopoly in the beef industry. The 1996 USDA study on concentration in the meat packing industry reported that producers felt powerless to deal with the large corporations, were fearful of vertical integration, and argued that the level of concentration allows the corporations to manipulate prices.

In 1996 a group of 10 U.S. beef producers filed a class action suit against IBP. They argue that IBP fixes prices and does not have to compete in the market because they control between 20 and 50 percent of local markets through contracts. Between 1990 and 1996 the farm value of the consumer beef dollar fell from 60 to 47 percent. WORC helped found the Cattlemen's Legal Fund to fight the case. They were joined by the U.S. National Farmers Union, the National Farmers Organization and others. (WORC, 1998; "Ranchers", 1998)

The class action suit against IBP was backed by an Amicus Brief from the Canadian National Farmers Union. Nettie Weibe, president of the NFU, argued that Canadian family farmers also opposed "captive supplies" which depress prices. She noted that the U.S. giants IBP and Cargill controlled 66 percent of the Canadian beef packing capacity. (Cattleman's Legal Fund, 1998)


Saskatchewan and sustainable agriculture

In Saskatchewan the government's push to support corporate pig factories is strongly opposed by the National Farmers Union, the Saskatchewan Environmental Society and local community groups linked together through the Coalition for the Protection of the Environment, based in Kelvington. The Saskatchewan groups are linked through the Internet to similar groups in the United States. They have received strong support from similar farm alliances in Iowa and North Carolina.

The Kelvington group went to court to try to get corporate pig factories declared "industrial developments" rather than farms, so as to be covered by provincial environmental legislation. The NDP government fought this case to the Supreme Court of Saskatchewan where the corporate sector won in a controversial case.

If the industrial food system was really being driven by consumer demand, then the move would be towards organic agriculture. On a world-wide basis, in 1997 organic food products represented a market of $11 billion. It is a market that is growing 20 percent per year. The poll by Novartis revealed that 54 percent of Americans wanted to see agriculture move towards organic production.
This consumer interest is being recognized in Europe by large food chains. But organic production cannot meet the market demand. In Europe, most governments are offering strong support for organic agriculture. Many governments have grant programs to help mainstream farmers make the transition. (Orton, 1998)

There are around 600 organic farmers in Saskatchewan. Their interests are represented by the Saskatchewan Organic Development Council. They need government support to help develop a province-wide system of processing, distribution and retailing. But with the government strongly committed to the industrial food system, they are being ignored. One new development in Saskatchewan is the formation of the New Green Alliance, a new political party which opposes corporate agriculture and genetically engineered foods and supports sustainable and organic agriculture.

Agriculture and the food industry have always been the most important industry in Saskatchewan. The trends towards industrial agriculture was always present as farmers were forced to compete with one another and adapt technological change in order to survive. In the past grain farmers formed co-operatives, supported marketing boards and formed political parties to defend their interests. But in the neoliberal era of the free market and free trade, the trend towards corporate farming and increased corporate control of the food industry has intensified. The political parties which used to support family farming have embraced the new neoliberal order. But there is still strong opposition to these trends from farmers, consumers, and environmentalists.



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