Which Should Get More Support: Exports, or Domestic Consumption?



It’s a humid Chicago evening, and I’m here vacationing with my family, drooling over a deep-dish pizza at Pizano’s noisy outdoor patio near Millennium Park, down the street from what’s commonly called the bean. Rain swept through the area earlier, and now that sticky Great Lakes weather is all over us. Indeed, it’s summer at its best.

I love living in Canada and being a Canadian. But to me, travel beyond our borders makes life a little richer, especially where food and agriculture are involved, which is almost everywhere.

Owen and his family under "The Bean" in Chicago.
Owen and his family under “The Bean” in Chicago.

Some cities, such as Chicago, have exceptional agricultural pasts. In the mid 1800s, Chicago helped open the Midwest to grain exports via the railways and ships served by its port. The railway system also helped move livestock from the prairies where they were grown, to the highly populated east coast. The Chicago Board of Trade was developed to help facilitate contracted grain sales and prices for US farmers, and still sets the pace today for prices everywhere.

For consumers, the city’s livestock heritage has led to the development of some of the country’s top steak houses and chains. And the immigrants that came here for work provided a broad palate of ethnic flavours, including the Italian food we’re enjoying this evening.

But it’s 2015. And despite the fact that most of the ingredients for my pizza came from American farms, I doubt if more than a few people are giving much thought to the farmers who grew them, or the agriculture system that processed them and transported them here.

Historians note even native Chicagoans are three or four generations removed from agriculture. And when tourists like me visit, it’s the food, not the farmer, that typically comes to mind.

This discrepancy isn’t lost on American farmers. A debate is going on in the US right now about how much of the multi-billion dollars the federal government spends to support farming should be dedicated to promoting food exports, versus trying to stimulate more domestic consumption (particularly fruit and vegetables).

Academics are weighing in. A recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics said modest decreases in trade promotion expenditures, coupled with more money for domestic promotion efforts, could influence domestic market conditions, caloric intake and nutrient consumption.

There’s more to this than health. Sure, exports are good for the economy. But any effort to promote American food domestically can be spun as being good for health and for keeping America strong. In that way, eating more US fruit and vegetables also feeds Americans’ strong sense of patriotism, and appeals to their desire for greater self-sufficiency and security.

Could we say the same here in Canada? I’m not sure. We’re still arguing about whether we are going to support or abandon our commitment to one of the pillars of Canadian farming, supply management. How can anyone expect a federal commitment to promoting healthy products such as milk, eggs and chicken, when there’s so much indecision about support for the very system that produces them? If we can’t honestly and wholly commit to how we produce food, how can we commit to the way we promote it?

Anyway, back in the US, my brother-in-law Todd is a proud American who produces videos for corporate real estate companies trying to sell industrial properties. He’s no slouch. We stopped to see him and my sister Beth on our way to Chicago. One of the topics we covered was GMOs.

He wondered why food companies “put” GMOs in food, like they’re some kind of additive, and why these companies can’t just pick them out, like most people do (or try to do, and fail) with anchovies on a pizza.

He felt a little better when I explained the GMO traits that help fight insects, boost production and resist certain herbicides are not expressed in the parts of plants that we eat. But the conversation was further affirmation that agriculture has a lot of catching up to do with consumers everywhere.

And farmers, who still have credibility with the public, need to be the ones who take the lead in trying to explain all this. Sure, in a city like Chicago, whose metro area comprises 10 million people, it’s not easy reaching key influencers. It takes a herculean effort to meaningfully connect with journalists, restaurateurs and grocers — and of course, consumers themselves — to introduce agriculture and talk about food.

However, work is something agriculture is familiar with. And that’s good, because there’s an awful lot to do.

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