Ian Petrie

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I believe we’re facing two disasters in this annus horribilis 2020: the worldwide pandemic, and the predicted impact of climate change. Both have human hands all over them. Both are affecting all of us, but especially the people growing our food.

The impact of this summer’s drought will be easier to grasp. It’s certainly not uniform across the province and some crops have come through OK but with smaller yields, especially ones that like heat: corn, grapes, soybean, grain crops that got an early start like barley.

PEI’s important potato crop is taking a beating, losses estimated right now at more than $50 Million and climbing. Livestock farmers will be short of feed this winter as pastures burn up, and the usually reliable second cut of hay or silage won’t happen. Crop insurance will help cover some costs.

I should add that a CTV news story on PEI’s potato biz that got a lot of play in other publications, including potato trade newsletters, had a serious mistake. It said: “Agricultural irrigation was outlawed on Prince Edward Island in 2002. It’s the only province in the country where farmers aren’t allowed to water their crops.” Instead it was a moratorium preventing drilling for new irrigation wells that was introduced in 2002 and continues to this day. There are 35 irrigation wells already in use and 29 irrigation ponds have been constructed in the last 20 years.

The moratorium is a frustration for those farmers who have become convinced (for good reason) that all the predictions for climate change of extreme and prolonged weather patterns have come true, with weeks of drought during the growing season now the new normal.

It will require credible research (and some trust that it is credible, the hard part) to show whether there’s sufficient water for the moratorium to be lifted. It’s far past time to start.

The COVID-1 9 impact is harder to calculate. There are lost markets as restaurants either haven’t reopened, or have cut back on purchases because of COVID regulations and the diminished tourism season. The pandemic has also exposed the reliance on temporary foreign workers from Mexico and the Caribbean. It’s forced the rest of us to recognize the thousands of food service workers in processing plants, supermarkets, food distribution centres, truckers and so on. We call these people heroes, and essential, but now understand many are receiving bare minimum pay.

People working at the large supermarket chains did receive a $2.00 an hour increase in March, but once profit margins were hit, and the supermarkets couldn’t pass on these costs to anyone else, this increase was rolled back in June.

We need to pay attention to this. Evan Fraser is the head of the University of Guelph’s Arrell Food Institute in Ontario. He understands that to keep essential workers like the immigrant farm labourers coming to Canada, treat those working throughout the supply chain fairly, pay and benefits will have to increase, but as the Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security he wonders who will pay these additional costs.

“I actually stay up at night worrying about this one. I don’t have an answer to it”, he told the Kingston Whig Standard. Fraser knows low income families are already struggling and can’t afford to pay more. “And we already have a food insecurity problem in this country that has been massively exacerbated by COVID.”

Fraser and many others are genuinely concerned about food insecurity for so many families. It’s also an argument many business writers and economists use to attack supply management. I think these are income security issues that quite rightly have also received a lot of attention during the pandemic.

A guaranteed annual income or something similar is what’s needed. Evans again, “ What we’re seeing is symptomatic of a situation that squeezes the margins at all levels and then leaves vulnerable people and vulnerable aspects (in the system) open for exploitation”.

What the roughly 60,000 temporary foreign workers now know is that their labour is critical and won’t be done by Canadians. That leverage and efforts by unions and labour activists will lead to better working conditions and pay, both direct expenses for farmers. Can these additional costs be recovered?

This really comes down to raw economic power, and farmers have learned over the last 20 years that with all the consolidation at the processing, wholesale, and retail levels that power is well beyond the farm gate.

Retailers in particular (the holders of valuable “shelf space”, that crucial last link to consumers) have been very skillful at distributing some of their costs back down the food chain. Walmart Canada recently announced it would charge suppliers extra fees to cover $3.5 Billion it will spend on new infrastructure. PEI’s Mary Robinson, the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, knows what comes next “Those suppliers, who are the ones who buy raw product from farmers, they’re getting squeezed, so you can be guaranteed that that squeeze is going to be felt down the line.”

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