Monday, April 19, 2010

Ministers Against Portfolio, Part 5: Minister against Agriculture

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Agriculture minister out of touch with area farmers")

Today: Minister against Agriculture, Gerry Ritz, whose actions and statements cause stress and frustration to Canadian farmers.

You may remember Minister Ritz for the callous remarks he made during the listeriosis crisis. The humour in “death from a thousand cold cuts” and hoping that the PEI fatality was Liberal MP Wayne Easter was lost on those sick from the outbreak, including this writer. And the recent listeriosis outbreak at Siena Foods shows that Ritz’s response hasn’t been very effective.

A recent gaffe was his November statement to Chinese officials, worried about the possible transmission of the blackleg fungus endemic to Canadian canola, that they need not worry since “all our seeds had Terminator genes in them”. This is distressing on several accounts, most of all because there are NO seeds being marketed or used in Canada with these genes (which prevent sprouting). One would hope the Minister would be aware of that, since Terminator seeds are very controversial and there is even an international moratorium on this technology. Since the Chinese are already restricting Canadian canola imports, it’s hard to see how spreading such misinformation could help. Canada is free of foot-and-mouth disease right now, but our Ag Minister seems to suffer from foot-IN-mouth disease.

A related issue of even more economic concern is before the House right now. A new law, Bill C-474, will be debated March 29th. It would create the requirement that export market analysis be done before allowing use of any new genetically engineered (GE) seeds. Canadian farmers are reeling from the collapse of our flax market due to contamination with GE seeds. Although GE flax has not yet been proven harmful, it is banned in Europe and most of our other export markets. Therefore, because of the contamination, we can’t sell ours. Although we removed GE flax from the market in 2001, apparently GE contamination is very difficult (and expensive) to eradicate, once released. The exact same thing could easily happen with proposed GE varieties of wheat and alfalfa. Without this bill, the only testing required is to prove the seeds aren’t biologically harmful – ignoring the effect they will have on farm incomes and export markets.

Sadly, instead of championing this prudent measure, our government is siding with the transnational agri-corporations intent on pushing GE on the market. C-474 is a private member’s bill with no support from the Minister who should be protecting our farmers.

In general, Ritz's focus on exports has been a complete failure in the face of the high Canadian dollar resulting from Harper government policies. Just as it hurts our Ontario manufacturers, our high petro-dollar hurts our farmers, too. Ritz encouraged over-growth in hog production, which is also collapsing under the high dollar. His response? To offer these farmers loan programs, so they can go even deeper into unpayable debt.

For purely ideological reasons, the Minister has opposed the farmer-run monopoly-buying power of the Canadian Wheat Board, even as he enables private consolidation in the beef market.

Ritz’s own market sense is displayed by his move into the ostrich farming fad just before it collapsed. This, and his strong continued support for grain biofuels, show that he and his government are out of touch with global trends and need to recalibrate if they want to actually help and protect the farmers under their charge.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

p.s. This article generated a couple of intersting letters to the editor, posted here.

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