Written by Heather Elliott
This last November I had the opportunity of attending the annual convention of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in Ottawa. Living and farming in Quebec, I hadn’t been very exposed to the NFU, and was thoroughly encouraged to find the membership well organized and taking a radical approach to agricultural issues, that is to say addressing farmers’ concerns at the roots of the problem. In these days of globalized, commodity-based agriculture, farming is political in and of itself, and small, organic farmers are at the forefront of the resistance by their very existence, their persistence, and by creating another model. While a number of interesting and relevant panels were held, in this article I would like to focus on the presentations and discussions around the issue of food sovereignty and farm labor.
Nettie Wiebe began by introducing the concept of food sovereignty, rooting it in the issue of control- control over what is grown, how it is grown, by whom, and who it is that profits from it. The concept was developed by Via Campesina in the early 1996, as a response to North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which included for the first time provisions for free trade between countries in the “North” (USA and Canada) and a country in the ‘global South’ (Mexico). As Nettie pointed out, “When you start to move food and capital globally, people will follow.” Stan Raper, a union organizer with UFCW who presented on the panel after Nettie, agrees, stating that “NAFTA created this [displaced] labour force.”
Depending on the year, US corn imports to Mexico have between tripled and quintupled since NAFTA, which has led to the loss of over 2 million farm jobs in Mexico in less than 20 years (www.mcclatchydc.com/2011/02/01/107871/free-trade-us-corn-flows-south.html#storylink=cpy). This trend is not limited to Mexico or Central America, but has become a global phenomenon with the onslaught of free trade agreements signed in the last two decades. The countries in the former Soviet block show the most dramatic changes as they open their agricultural sectors to free trade agreements. Poland, for example, lost 38% of its farms between 2007 and 2010, while the average size of Polish farms increased by 40% between 2000 and 2010 (presented by Camila Montecinos). As free trade agreements first put medium-sized and then small farms out of business, they create a displaced labour force.
Canada is following the trend, with a 17% loss of farms from 2006-2011. According to Statistics Canada, in fact, since 2001, farm numbers have fallen in all classes of farm revenue except for the $250,000-or-more class. So we have less and less farms while the farms that are surviving are getting bigger, the new status quo with our globalized agricultural markets. How does that affect the work force here at home? As farms grow in size, we have less farmers, and their job descriptions change, becoming more repetitive. As Karen Pederson’s experience at Pederson’s Apiaries in North-West Saskatchewan evidences, there seems to be an increasing reluctance among the younger generation of workers to do the physical work of farming. She always had, and would still prefer to, hire locals each season, but is simply unable to find willing workers, even with advertised wages almost double the minimum wage. In fact, the average age of Canadian farmers has never been older- young folk are as a whole moving away from agriculture towards more urban lifestyles. Recent changes to Employment Insurance may make it even harder to recruit seasonal workers, as many of those who were able to rely on EI during the off-season will need to find year-round employment, rare in the agricultural sector. But despite this reality, the issue of temporary foreign workers is often controversial, dividing small businesses, farmers, large agri-businesses and unions against each other. Karen Pedersen described the transition from being the town heroes when they hired local kids each summer, to being demonized when they decided to start hiring temporary foreign workers.
While in Canada, farmers are struggling to meet their labour needs with the local work force and our rural areas are suffering from rural outmigration in favour of urban centers. Now 81% of the population living in cities, a number which is expected to increase by 1.1% annually. We want more farmers and farm workers and to grow our rural population, but deny the right to immigrate to the many temporary foreign farm workers who would love to do just that: farm, here. As Karen Pederson put it “These migrant workers are not stealing our jobs, our (agri-business) corporations stole theirs [through free trade agreements]!” Karen would love for the workers she hires to be allowed access to full citizenship, not only would it provide her a steady work force year by year, but it is the just the just thing to do. After all, as she pointed out, “that’s how we all got here,”- historically most immigrants to Canada have been farmers- “our immigration system is broken”. It begs the question as to why borders have been opened to commodities, but these same borders are becoming increasingly restrictive to human movement.
Food sovereignty is the key concept that ties this all together. Not only do we need to defend our right to control of our own food system, but also defend and protect this right across the world, for while free trade negatively affects farmers on both sides of the borders, local control has a corresponding positive effect. Despite popular myths, small farms are significantly more efficient that large farms. For example, in Ukraine small farms occupy just 16% of agricultural land, but produce 55% of total agricultural output.
So as small farms disappear across the world, reliance on imported food increases, leading, again, to the increase in large farms here at home, and the consequential loss of small farms here as well. The concept of food sovereignty was only needed once free trade agreements started to threaten it. Up until very recently, control of the food system was inherently in the hands of small farmers.
So where to go with all this? Via Campesina was created by Latino peasant farmers, who have a history of resisting. We can take their lead on several fronts:
~Oppose new waves of free trade agreements. Final negotiation of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union are expected to be concluded in the next 2 years. There is still time to stop the trend of, as Brewster Kneen aptly put it, “the ceding of government power to corporations”. For more information, read a document put out by the NFU on the issue here.
~Educate your communities to increase understanding of what brings migrant agricultural workers to Canada, and include these workers in community life.
~Support immigration reform, to allow temporary foreign workers a path to citizenship so that they too can share in the benefits we enjoy from their work
It’s a big issue, but one that we can work together to change. Farmers, already busy enough with the work of production, can add their voices to the work of organizations working on these issues for a stronger impact. For as Camila Montecinos says, “Defending, protecting, strengthening small, peasant, family farming is crucial to the welfare of humankind. This is our political work”.