I'm not sure where all the local food proponents are holding court, but wherever you are, now's the time to come out swinging in support of local livestock farmers.
They're getting hammered by surpluses, low prices for their animals, rising feed and fuel costs and the high Canadian dollar, which greatly affects their export markets. It's the same around the world, especially for pork. And a next stop for excess pork from abroad might be Canada.
In late November came news from the European Union, one of the world's biggest pork-producing sources, that it's going to start subsidizing shipments of fresh pork. Its producers are feeling the crunch, too, it says, with feed costs alone having jumped there 35 per cent in one year. So it's going to try easing financial problems being faced by EU pork producers.
In other words, it's going to off-load its problems onto the rest of the world.
This sound familiar. Europe and the United States had the same problem some 20 years ago, except then the main commodity they were swamped with was grain.
Their solution to mountains of harvested grain sitting and rotting in storage, if indeed storage could be found, was to dump it onto the world market for a deflated price.
They gave subsidies to shippers to get rid of it, and turned a blind eye. Good riddance.
But then the world price became this artificially low price. Farmers in the United States and EU got caught in their own snare. The governments started subsidizing farmers so they wouldn't go broke trying to sell grain for the price their own governments had established.
And once the world price was set, everyone else followed along with subsidies to their grain farmers. In Canada, billions of dollars have been paid to grain farmers over the years to help keep them afloat. And while that's huge here, it's minor compared to what the much wealthier United States and the EU have paid their farmers. U.S. farmers are still reporting record-high income years. Grain prices have improved substantially, owing to new demand. But these prices are taking a toll on many livestock farmers.
No subsidy levels have been set yet for EU pork (which already grants export subsidies for 11 kinds of pork cuts or types), which has been piling up in private storage since October. But one official there is quoted as saying the amounts won't be "symbolic."
Fortunately, the pork industry isn't as likely to be affected for as long a term as grain, because it's faster to make production adjustments in livestock than grain. But meanwhile, we've got a big problem. Guelph-based Ontario Pork has laid off 25 per cent of its staff. Every pig that's sold here costs farmers at least $20 more to produce it than it's worth on the market. Most farmers are nowhere near to breaking even.
And on the horizon, EU ships are standing ready to sail to North America.
So in the face of this mess, how can Ottawa even think about letting European pork into Canada?
Well, maybe it won't, if enough local food advocates pound the table.
Or maybe for trade purposes, Ottawa doesn't have much choice. After all, Canada exports more than 15 million hogs every year, mainly to the U.S. and Japan, but elsewhere, too. And if Canada's directing that many animals into the world market, it can only complain about the export subsidies, not the act of selling abroad.
But the timing stinks for importing pork. And it looks like it's not just European pork that coming our way. In early December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was predicting pork exports from that country will reach a new record in 2008, as will American farmers' overall farm income.
Clare Schlegel, president of the Canadian Pork Council, calls the domestic situation critical.
He says producers are seeing unparalleled losses on their farms, "due to circumstances that are completely out of their control."
The sector has appealed to Ottawa and the province, and had a good hearing from Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Leona Dombrowsky, when she spoke at the recent annual meeting of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. "We know you need money — yesterday," she said.
And still, the EU boats stand ready. As far as I can tell, Canada doesn't need more pork, especially from somewhere else. Absorbing imports at this time not only flies in the face of recovery, it's contrary to the local food movement, which seemed to be gaining momentum.
Here's a chance to show it's not just a fad.
Get behind local pork producers, and beef producers, the same way Anita Stewart did a few years ago with the World Longest Barbecue, to support cattle farmers when the U.S. closed the border to live animals.
Buy local, yes, but support farmers politically too, if you think their survival is important. Politicians considering handing out millions of dollars need to know where the public stands on these kinds of decisions, and now's the time to speak up, before the boats arrive.