By Michael von Massow
The Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) recently launched an advertising campaign to lobby for federal support for grains and oilseeds producers. There has been considerable discussion in social media and other fora regarding financial support for the Canadian agricultural sector. Many groups were disappointed with the size of the federal government package and that it focused on only a few sectors. This GFO campaign is a response to that. I was disappointed in the tone of the campaign but also thought that there were some strategic questions about the approach.
This campaign made me very uncomfortable. Agriculture has long decried “fear based marketing” when it comes to issues like genetically modified crops and other biotechnology. This campaign is clearly in the exact same vein. It’s hard to complain that other players are not playing fair if agricultural groups are playing the exact same game. There was a better way of making this point.
I want to be clear that I am not arguing for or against support for grain farmers here. I am simply being critical of the approach. Our food system has responded extremely well to the demand shock created by the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been some short term shortages in the stores and some more recent scares with respect to meat products but overall food is still available in stores. There is little risk that this will change in the short term.
The issue here is the viability of individual farms as commodity prices are low. We were seeing low prices even before COVID-19. The expectation was that this was going to be a tough year for producers. It is part of the reality of farming with cyclical commodity prices. There are programs in place to buffer the losses associated with these cycles. We can have a separate debate about the adequacy of the programs. This is about supporting local farmers in Ontario.
You could argue that the bad year is exacerbated by the pandemic. A big part of the current problem is the low price of oil. Low oil prices lead to low gasoline prices. Low gasoline prices lower ethanol prices which reduces the demand for corn and lowers corn prices. The pandemic has reduced the demand for gasoline so will confound the low prices. This has virtually no connection to the store shelves that are the focus of the GFO campaign. There may, in fact, be a longer term concern about the viability of the ethanol market that has more to do with declining oil use and less to do with the challenges of COVID-19.
This raises the issue of the strategy associated with and the approach to the request. The focus in the campaign is on COVID19. If you make an explicit connection between COVID-19 and the challenges on farms then you might generate ad hoc short term support (as was the case for the current federal program) that doesn’t deal with the more fundamental non-COVID-19 problems. It may also make it more difficult to come back later to ask for more support if the problems persist.
One final point is not directly related to this campaign but is worth mentioning. I saw a lot of discussion that other groups (students and others) got money but agriculture got much less. I think that’s also a strategic mistake. That sounds more like saying “they got money, we should too.” Agriculture has a suite of existing programs. The pot of money today and in the future is not unbounded. What if others start coming to the table saying “farmers are getting support every year, restaurants (which employ over a million Canadians historically) are also small businesses that have seasonality and business cycles, they should get support too.” It makes more sense to make the case for support based on what you need not what others get.
Farmers are the foundation of the food system. Many are struggling today for reasons related to a variety of factors, including in some cases COVID-19. This campaign requesting additional support for existing and ongoing programs based on a fear based message related to COVID-19 does those farmers a disservice.
Originally published in Food Focus Guelph (87), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph.