Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Killing CWB nets nothing

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Wilf "Butch" Harder, former director of the Canadian Wheat Board and chairman of its former farmer advisory committee, says the federal government's legislation to abolish the CWB's single desk imposes "a corporate takeover of agriculture... a vertically-integrated system." And, he warns, "Canadian consumers should start to be a little concerned."

Vertical integration, Harder continues, means farmers will soon have no choice but to buy everything, from seed to fertilizer to marketing services, from one of the big private agribusiness giants. At that point, they lose control over their input costs, their negotiating power and ultimately, their livelihoods.

"I can't understand how these young guys can't see it," he said in an interview. "We don't have the Prairie pools anymore... but they should know what Monsanto is doing and what the grain companies are doing. You buy their seed, you use their chemicals. The prices keep going up. Put two and two together... It's fairly elementary.

"Viterra is everywhere. And Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is everywhere and they pit one farmer against another around the world."

The ink was still drying on the original 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement when then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan sent a statement of administrative action to Congress signalling his intention to appropriate Western Canada's wheat for U.S. multinational agribusiness.

It's taken 22 years, but finally, Reagan's dream of obliterating the CWB as a competitor to private global food giants like Cargill, ADM, Viterra and Bunge is coming true. Despite a 62 per cent farmer rejection in September's CWB plebiscite, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives are ramming through legislation abolishing the CWB's single desk.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who negotiated and signed the FTA/NAFTA, has already reaped his reward. He sits on ADM's board and earned a total of $628,472 in fees, stock options and other benefits between 2007 and 2009, according to Forbes magazine.

But for Harper, just ending the CWB's single desk is probably reward enough. He's pursued it since his days as president of the right-wing National Citizens' Coalition.

The CWB has been at or near the top of the NCC's hit list from the latter's inception. The NCC campaigns, among other things, against all restrictions on third-party election advertising, all public funding for any form of social action, compulsory union dues and medicare.

As NCC president, Harper denounced the board as "a draconian wheat monopoly" that "relied on force and fear to exist."

He went further, claiming the CWB's single desk violated "the right of citizens to own private property."

Curiously, Harper isn't worrying about violating the private-property rights of dairy, egg and poultry farmers in Ontario and Quebec. Indeed, the Harper government's determination to protect supply management in poultry, eggs and dairy recently cost it a seat at major trade talks among Pacific Rim nations.

Former Harper campaign manager and Conservative strategist Tom Flanagan says Harper shelved his aversion to supply management years ago to court rural Ontario votes.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said comparing the CWB and supply management was like comparing "apples and walnuts." The CWB was imposed on farmers, she said, while supply management was demanded by farmers.

Lawrence Herman, a former diplomat now practising law with the Toronto firm of Cassels Brock and Blackwell, accused the Harper government of unilaterally abandoning Canada's negotiating leverage in international agricultural trade negotiations by destroying the CWB. With annual sales of between $4 billion and $8 billion, it's the largest marketer of wheat and barley in the world.

"The question is, why should Canada make these changes unilaterally, largely to the benefit of international grain companies and to the applause of U.S. politicians, without negotiating some quid pro quo with the Americans? Why voluntarily give up a valuable bargaining chip that can be used with the U.S. and other trading partners without securing something in return to benefit Canadian farmers?" Herman wrote in The Globe and Mail recently.

"The U.S. agriculture sector is so rife with internal government support and market access barriers that there could be important gains in improving Canadian farmers' and agri-food producers' access to that market by skilfully playing the wheat board card," he continued.

"There's no question the Harper government's policy is welcomed in Washington and by U.S. farm groups and large grain companies.

But getting nothing in return from the Americans and from our major trading partners is an abandonment of our international negotiating leverage."

Herman notes that once gone, the CWB -- or any marketing board -- cannot be recreated thanks to the one-way privatization doors embedded in corporate-driven trade agreements like FTA/NAFTA and now, the World Trade Organization.

 

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2011 A11

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