No relief in sight for pressure on farmers

Magic doesn’t happen when the calendar turns. But trends may take hold, especially in an election year like the one Ontario will experience.

 

Politically, and some say practically, the province is torn between urban and rural. Food is one thing that unites us, and the interest in its production in rural Ontario continues to grow. As that happens, it will intensify as a political issue.

 

In 2018, you’ll hear a lot of campaign promises about saving taxpayers money, and how governments are going to help citizens deal with the rising cost of getting by.

 

At some point, the focus will fall on the rising cost of food, as it always does. The annual food price forecast by the University of Guelph and Dalhousie University predicts food prices will rise one to three per cent in 2018. That’s a little less than $350 a year, on a family’s annual food bill that will grow to almost $12,000.

 

That rise is unexpectedly modest, especially when researchers break it down and note about $200 of the anticipated $350 will come from consumers eating out more, and opting for prepared food. That’s where they’re putting their food dollars.

 

Meals out have to be prepared and served by someone. That costs money, particularly in a province where minimum wage is on the rise.

 

So if the remainder of the one to three per cent rise in food prices must be shared among the entire food chain, there isn’t much to go around. Politicians need to take note of this reality when they make policies and create standards that affect rural Ontario.

 

Sure, we need impeccable and irreproachable standards, not only for our own sake, but to maintain and grow export markets, a provincial imperative. It’s become clear that well-oiled export-seeking bureaucracies are using our environmental standards as a point of distinction compared to our competitors, and rightly so. The clean, green, pristine image abroad of Ontario and Canada could hardly be a better selling point.

 

But a prosperous economy depends on an equally prosperous agri-food sector. Research is showing that producers are under tremendous pressure in the face of a more demanding public, and that it’s a major factor in mental illness problems on the farm. It’s a real issue, and producers need help to meet the growing demands being put on them.

 

From everything I’ve read, part of the pressure is coming from the public’s lack of understanding of agriculture. Many producers feel vilified and victimized. Current efforts to connect agriculture with urban Canada are inadequate, relegated to too few people with huge mandates and miniscule budgets. And there’s no prediction anywhere that 2018 will see a meaningful bump in the commitment to connect rural and urban Ontario.

 

A bright spot on the horizon for the fruit and vegetable sector is the part of the food price forecast that says half of all consumers want to make plant protein more a part of their diet. There’s some suggestion that insect protein will have a role in their non-meat protein choices too, but really, it’s no substitute for fresh produce. A key will be helping consumers figure out how to stop wasting produce once they get it home. As prices crawl up, waste will become increasingly irksome to consumers who make healthy choices, only to see them spoil.

 

And finally, the food price forecast says consumers are likely to take a harder look at animal welfare in 2018, prompted in part by global efforts to reduce antibiotic use throughout society. This doesn’t directly affect fruit and vegetable growers. But it certainly adds to the overall uncertainty consumers feel about what goes on behind the farm gate – and what they can be led to believe.

 

Publish date: 
Saturday, December 16, 2017

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