Farmers voice a wide range of opinions on the proposed Responsible Grain code of practice

Opinion

With consultations underway for the Responsible Grain code of practice, farmers are expressing varied levels of support and frustration towards the concept. Echo chambers have developed on both sides of the issue, with what I perceive to be the majority of farmers in the middle looking for facts and understanding of what Responsible Grain is all about.

You can find interviews with several of the people involved in developing the code on RealAgriculture, including Tyler Bjornson of the Canada Grains Council and Ted Menzies, chair of the code development committee. We also featured a panel of farmers discussing the draft code on RealAg Radio — you can listen to it here.

Here is a summary of the main discussion points or concerns that farmers are bringing up in emails, tweets and phone calls to RealAgriculture in response to those interviews and the consultations:

Where is the premium?

Many farmers feel the incentive for participating in the program is unclear, and that if they have to increase their record keeping and enhance environmental practices, there should be a financial reward tied to it.

Regarding a premium, on RealAg Radio, Tyler Bjornson of Canada Grains Council stated, “This isn’t about creating a premium product from Canada, this is about making us competitive with the rest of the pack.” Put another way, that implies that Canadian grain could be at a competitive disadvantage or discount without it.

In the case of the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef’s code of practice, Cargill stepped up as a processor and offered a premium — albeit, quite small — and McDonald’s invested heavily in advertising beef from cattle raised in the program. So far, there has not been a parallel to that in the grain code process.

Some have also described “will there be a premium?” as a chicken and egg question, which divides many of the for and against sides on Responsible Grain.

Who is this really for?

Due to the fact there are no tangible premiums to capture or end-use customers screaming for a widely-accepted code of conduct, some farmers are left pondering who Responsible Grain really helping.

Narratives around grain companies, CropLife International, even conspiracy theories around “the Great Restart” and the United Nations, are mentioned in several videos and tweets posted online. Farmers not seeing value at their farmgate spawns questions of who is really helped by farmers abiding by the code.

The question about agenda is often linked to discussion about who is funding the code development. It’s not completely clear how much each organization involved has contributed, and whether it’s in the form of cash or staff time, but federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced $789,558 in funding for the Canada Grains Council to develop the code at the CropConnect conference in Winnipeg in February 2020. That funding was contingent on industry contributing at least 25 per cent of the cash for the project.

Ducks Unlimited

For many farmers, the big red flag has been the involvement of Ducks Unlimited. Although how much influence Ducks Unlimited has had in the creation of the code of practice draft is unclear, many are concerned that the NGO is involved at all.

For many the fact Duck Unlimited is involved in other agriculture codes of practice like the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef does not wash away their concerns. A farmer in Manitoba told RealAgriculture, “the relationship that ranchers have with DU is much different than farmers.”

Negative language and tone

As farmers participate in the consultations, a very constructive criticism that has surfaced is the negative tone of much of the language in the Responsible Grain modules. Words do matter, and the tone has been interpreted by some to be written in a punishing or punitive, not encouraging, tone. One Saskatchewan farmer said, “If most farmers are already doing 90 per cent of what’s going to be in the code, it should be written with positive language to encourage instead of like a punishing rule book.”

Mandatory vs. voluntary

The Responsible Grain committee has repeatedly emphasized the voluntary nature of the code of practice, but concerns about government heavy-handedness may alter that intention. One of the justifications for Responsible Grain has been it would allow farmers to create their own code instead of being forced to meet a less industry-friendly, government-crafted plan. For some this has sparked concern that farmers are being trapped into a voluntary code that will eventually be made mandatory by a federal government looking to regulate. There are livestock — pork, dairy and poultry — codes of practice that are mandatory, but that requirement was self-imposed by producer boards. Ted Menzies, long-time Conservative MP and chair of the committee responsible for crafting the code, has emphatically stated “this program is voluntary.”

Property rights and freedom

For the farmers who are most against Responsible Grain, it appears to come down to property rights and liberty. There are sections of the farming population that sees this as the federal government imposing its will and infringing on property rights and the farmers ability to do what they deem as the best practices for their farm. For others, as described to RealAgriculture in an email from a member of the audience, “just because I own the land, doesn’t mean I have the freedom to just do whatever I want in farming, business or life; all industries have codes to follow.”

The Responsible Grain committee has added several more consultation sessions for farmers to its schedule to accommodate feedback from producers. You can find more info on it, and still sign up to participate in consultations on January 28 or 29 at ResponsibleGrain.ca.

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