I couldn't be silent on the issue of the Canadian Wheat Board. It's in my blood. This is an article I wrote that will be appearing in a provincial NDP newsletter in June (so bear in mind the audience, when reading). For another angle that brings in the labour movement, see Simon Enoch's article.
On May 17, Conservative Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz terminated a longstanding debate in Western Canada by announcing his government's intention to end the Canadian Wheat Board's monopoly on marketing wheat and barley.
On one level, the debate is economic – do farmers do better with a monopoly seller representing them in the global marketplace by pooling their grain and sharing the average proceeds? This question has been conclusively answered 'yes' by many academic studies and trade inquiries.
However, the real issue at stake is an ideological one. The anti-CWB side argues private entrepreneurs should have the economic right to market their own grain and barley and compete with each other for the best price. The pro-CWB side argues in favour of economic cooperation and food sovereignty - values that have historically typified the Canadian farm movement and were crucial in the CWB’s formation.
The Canadian Wheat Board evolved in response to western farmers' lack of market power in the early part of the twentieth century when federal government policy set up the West as cheap providers of raw materials for Eastern industry. These farmers felt powerless against duopolistic railways, elevator companies, and the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. In the face of this, farmers' natural inclination was to take matters into their own hands, acting collectively for the good of the farm community: the Grain Growers Grain Company, the Wheat Pools, and finally the Wheat Board – made mandatory in 1943 – resulted.
Through its three guiding principles - single desk selling, price pooling, and government guarantees - the Wheat Board provides stability and market power to farmers. Unlike a private grain company, whose shareholders demand ever-increasing profits, the Board returns more than 95 per cent of its sales proceeds to farmers.
Of course, this is only part of what the CWB does. The Wheat Board also uses its considerable influence to advocate for farmers with Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, taking these railways to court when they have provided substandard service to farmers. The CWB also invests heavily in wheat and barley research, funding 60 per cent of the Canadian International Grains Institute. The Wheat Board has spent decades building markets that promote the superior reputation of Canadian wheat. These are services that the private sector either will not currently perform or will only do for a profit.
The Wheat Board is one of the last major institutions created by our ancestors to support prairie farmers. Farmers have lost other farmer-controlled institutions such as the Pools and supportive government programs such as the Crow Rate. In a situation that hearkens back to the 1900s, western farmers today are at the whims of a duopolistic rail transport system and the four companies who control more than 80 per cent of the global grain trade. More than an economic loss, though, the destruction of the Wheat Board seems to indicate the destruction of the cooperative values of our Saskatchewan farming ancestors.
Perhaps the most relevant lesson from the Wheat Board's impending demise for both rural and urban folk involves the federal government's conception of democracy. CWB opponents claim the recent election of a federal Conservative majority government, regardless of the tiny percentage of those voters who are farmers, means that the government has a clear mandate to kill the CWB.
CWB supporters point out that there already is a democratic mechanism to change the Board’s mandate. Since 1998, farmers who sell wheat and barley have the democratic right to elect directors to the CWB to carry out their wishes. And, since these elections began, 70 per cent of farmers have consistently voted in pro-CWB directors.
It's hard not to see Ritz's termination of the Wheat Board debate as a continuation of Conservative attempts to erode democracy by bypassing democratic processes, ignoring stakeholder desires, and ruling autocratically. For our food system, it means that we have lost control of a major staple and a major counterforce to multinational agribusiness giants.