Thursday, November 17, 2011

Magazines Over Milk

Very few things get me fired up like a good debate over supply management. Inevitably, the day would come when the debate would be hashed out on the front pages of our national news, rather than over beers with friends & colleagues.

That day has arrived. As the Canadian Wheat Board fate hangs in the throes of parliament, and Prime Minister Harper explores joining APEC, we dairy farmers are being thrust into what may be a pivotal point in history. A point, I fear, we will have very little control and suffer all the consequence. 

Surfing yet another opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, my panic is rising. I am beginning to understand the desperation those Prairie farmers must be feeling as they fight to keep their Wheat Board. (A matter, which being from Ontario, I do not have an opinion.) The media seems unrelenting in their determination to convince Canadians supply management is the thorn in the side of our economic progression. Their pursuit of ideology is not only puzzling but, when paired with their massive reach and the overall lack of consumer understanding in regards to food, it sets me in a state of distress. 

At less than 10 years of age, I vividly recall during NAFTA and GATT that my world, as I knew it, was ending. I equated the threat to supply management as a threat on our home and livelihood. I even lined up friends' homes to keep me off the streets. Yes, streets of the booming village of 800 people where i grew up. Though less dramatic now, at the age of 28, I witness the struggles of farming friends in non-supply managed sectors, and I appreciate the real sense of insecurity that comes with today's global society. Turn on the news; nothing is certain. Not a job. Not your government. Not your food.

Ritz has been vocal, supply management will be protected because farmers want to keep it. While the milk market is primarily domestic and grains exported, there are farmers that wanted the Wheat board also. At the end of the day, the opportunity for greater profits won. Ending supply management may open other trade doors, but make no mistake, the winners will not be consumers. 93% of milk produced is consumed domestically, so the room for competition is small. Additionally, the farmer only receives 10% of the price of a $2 glass of milk, and even still, they are covering the cost of production. What savings might be had will certainly not translate into cheaper grocery store prices. Witness the supermarket price of beef when BSE devastated the beef industry in 2003 as a recent example.

Yet, we've come to measure ourselves against the U.S., where the expectation of more, cheaper food has created a system built on an artificial cost structure. Government subsidization means food is being sold cheaper than it can be produced, creating a global treadmill of nations trying to drive down costs to compete, and eliminating domestic production capacity in the process. If you can't compete, then get out. Possibly, but at what point do you need to ensure your have the ability to feed your own nation?

We've reduced our food producers to campaigning for support on the Toronto nightly news, like the local CUPE chapter. We are in dire straits. Though both important, this isn't your transit system or child's education, this is the very sustenance by which you live.

Sadly, the media only sees the trees. Supply management isn't perfect, but for goodness sake, take a look at what is going on in the broader scope. World population has swelled beyond 7 billion; it's only a matter of time before China and India drive demand, and subsequently prices, so high we will wish we had a national system in place to ensure an affordable, safe food supply for Canadians.

Finally, there is no more entitlement here than in any industry where you work hard for an honest day's pay. When was the last time Andrew Coyne put in an 18 hour day, thawing frozen pipes in the dark, racing the weather to get a crop in or standing in the pit of a parlor on his feet for hours on end. The question no one seems willing to ask in this complex puzzle is how the middleman is doing? But then, it's easier to lay blame to 13,000 farmers than the major corporations taking 90% of the profit in that glass of milk, isn't is. After all, you would hate to lose that advertising revenue in your magazine wouldn't you?


  1. I think the challenge we will continue to have is the media driving the discussion. Of course the challenge with that is only half-truths and not the whole story. Yes, quotas are expensive to buy. Then again so is a lot of things. I can't start a McDonalds for nothing, or a 10 story apartment building, or a crop operation. Every business costs money. Yes, there are regulations in place to control supply and restrict imports - giving a leg up for Canadian producers. But then again - don't publications in Canada get mail credits to compete against US publications? Doesn't the government give tax breaks and other incentives for business to set up in Canada? Free trade may exist in paper, but there is no such thing as fair trade. That is where we need to stop kidding ourselves.