Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Cost of Dirt Cheap Dairy

Discounted chocolate milk

There are many voices in the debate over whether supply management is good for Canadians. Reality is these predictions are just that; they are expected outcomes crafted using best and worst case scenarios depending on who is crafting the position. In Owen Robert's recent post on, he shares some of the dairy industry's common arguments. Without trying to create fear, I am taking this further as I think there are more questions consumers should consider in light of supply management's future and whether "dirt, cheap dairy", or any "cheap food policy" for that matter, is good for Canadians. 

1) What does a cheap food society look like? 

Contrary to popular belief, sustainable food systems need not always cost more but they do require farmers earn a comfortable living, which means netting a profit without working 20 hours a day. Most would consider this fair. While dairy farmers earn a good living compared to the average citizen, they are also running a business and often those returns must be reinvested in land, equipment or cattle. So, like any small business owner, they are often taking home more equity than cash.  

Furthermore, that return also allows them to use less intensive agriculture practices, resulting in less impact on the environment and cows (compare this to the large, super-dairies south of the border). Dairy farmers are very proud of their farms, putting great energy and time into their maintenance. One individual commented on Owen's blog pointed to the dismal New York rural landscape as an indicator of what 'cheap food' does to a rural society. I have heard this same comment from co-workers visiting Ontario; our well-kept fence rows mostly lack the rusty relics and vacant, blown over buildings commonly seen of rural American farmsteads. 

2) What is the cost of cheap food?

When margin is removed from the value chain, pretty quickly the entire value chain starts to feel the squeeze. As actions are taken to cut costs, the most critical element of the system is put at risk, food safety.

Frequent recalls in processed meats and produce could be partially attributed to the cheap food mentality. There should never be an excuse for actions which compromise human health and put lives at risk, yet we know large companies are under constant pressure to cut costs and increase production just to keep the lights on (and keep Canadians employed). It's not unreasonable to think in an environment where the bottom line is strained, less care may be taken or decisions which might otherwise seem inconsequential increase the risk of compromised safety. 

3) What does cheaper food solve?

As Owen already pointed out, it exists in Canada. Blessed to have never personally known the challenges facing low-income households, I do wonder if it's less a function of food prices and more about availability and proper education about healthy food preparation. 

The food desert is a well-documented issue in the U.S., and in Canada, we know there are also many regions, both within urban and rural areas where Canadians do not have access to fresh fruit and vegetables and healthy foods within walking distance. Compounding this, our schools no longer teach healthy cooking so while the edge of the supermarket is the cheapest route to the cash register, many resort to filling their cart with products from the centre aisles. Less nutrient dense and loaded with excess calories, fat, and sugar, these products may be more convenient, but are contributing to Canada’s tripling obesity rate. They are also more expensive.

You only need to watch one of the many food documentary trailers on YouTube to raise an eyebrow at the lengths the system has gone too to produce "cheap food". I believe the race to the bottom mentality with which our society has become obsessed is putting food production in a corner. Proper distribution of value, from farmer through the retailer and consumer ensures Canadians receive safe, healthy and sustainably produced food. Though great opportunity exists for reform in Canada’s dairy industry, sweeping changes intended to wipe out supply management may only hurt Canada in the long run.

No comments:

Post a Comment