One reason farmers farm is the satisfaction that comes with feeding people. In Canada’s case, those people are not only the Canadians who live from coast to coast to coast, but also citizens of many other countries. Canada is the world’s fifth largest exporter of agricultural commodities.
And the U.S. is our biggest trading partner. About 35 per cent of the food we export goes there.
Every day – not just in the pandemic-driven crisis we’re in – food is a necessity. It’s unimaginable to think of us holding it back from people who need it.
But last week, the Trump administration’s mean-spirited and potentially deadly attempt to hoard medical supplies destined for Canada threw fuel on the fire for those on this side of the border who are calling for Trump-like protectionist policies here.
It also gave new motivation to those who think the Canadian government hasn’t done enough to support farmers during not only this time of crisis, but in the preceding years when they’ve been beaten up by everything from climate change to rock-bottom prices.
Those legions are significant. Senator Rob Black of Fergus summed it up this way Tuesday on Twitter: “I’ve been hearing from people in the ag industry – from mushroom growers to cattle producers to food processors – and I’ve heard the same message: agriculture has the ability to lead us out of this crisis and continue to feed Canadians and the world, but needs government on its side.”
No one is surprised anymore by Trump’s bravado and posturing, especially with a U.S. federal election on the horizon. But even Trump knows health does not exist in a vacuum. Food is vital for health, and people who are adequately fed are the best equipped to fight disease and recover from it.
Farmers are the ones who produce that food. Instead of threatening our supplies, Trump should be asking what the U.S. can do to further open the border for access by Canada’s agri-food sector, which provides food for everyone, including Americans.
Such discussions are moot, though, if farmers themselves are unhealthy or otherwise unable to produce food.
In a post on the blog Food Focus, University of Guelph researchers Mike von Massow and Alfons Weersink call farmers the foundation of the food supply chain. They say farmers are used to dealing with uncertainty from weather and market volatility.
But COVID-19 means additional risks, they say, including the risk of the virus directly affecting the farmer and farm employees. For example, given the average age of farmers in Canada is 58 and roughly one-quarter are over 65, farmers are particularly vulnerable to the virus should they become infected.
The researchers say governments have prioritized the food supply chain and are working to ensure that food continues to move. Despite Trump’s threats against medical supplies, the borders are open to commerce, driven in large part by the desire to keep imported food coming to Canada.
“Open borders are not just important for Canadian consumers,” say the researchers. “Canada is an important exporter of foods and if borders are closed or restricted this could have serious impacts for Canadian producers as prices would drop as markets are lost and excess supply resulted.”
Their perspective is mirrored by the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance. It says countries may be tempted to hoard and adopt food restrictions, but it contends that supply shortfalls will be best addressed though unfettered flow of products and increased production.
“Taking away the possibility to sell abroad would remove the incentive for farmers, producers and food manufacturers to grow, make, and deliver safe food and feed products to where they are needed most,” it says. “In these dire times, more trade is needed, not less.”
Canadians must look after other Canadians. But I just can’t see us holding back life’s necessities from anyone – including Americans.