Agriculture

Feed the world’s starving millions? We may not be able to feed our own

TERENCE DICKINSON September 20 1976
Agriculture

Feed the world’s starving millions? We may not be able to feed our own

TERENCE DICKINSON September 20 1976

Feed the world’s starving millions? We may not be able to feed our own

Agriculture

Unaccountably, modern man prefers to disregard danger signals—at increasing risk to his very survival. It took the severe shortages that followed the Arab oil embargo to prompt serious consideration of energy conservation. The alarums of the scientific community over the nuclear menace (see Science, page 52) still go largely ignored. So do the ever-more-worrying forecasts of a global food crisis. Canada. a fat-cat nation, is one of the chief offenders, particularly in agriculture, which loses hundreds of acres of prime land every day to industry, housing or speculators.

With a spectacular grain harvest on the Prairies and other bumper crops being gathered in by our farmers this year, Canada may seem remote from any “crisis” in agriculture. But now there are only five countries exporting more food than they import (Canada, the United States, Argentina, South Africa and Australia), and suddenly the question has become how much longer Canada can stay among the favored few. In a report last month, the Science Council of Canada warned that the country will not be able to meet the food requirements for the predicted national population of 35 million in the year 2000 unless it mends its ways. The report called for a decrease in immigration and sought to correct overoptimistic assessments of the country’s agricultural potential. “We have not yet taken seriously the problem of ensuring our own food supply, much less protecting our position as an important exporter of food,” the report declared.

The facts seem to back up the Science Council’s contention. Most of Canada is desert, rock or forest—all swept by winter winds—and of the remainder only a small portion can sustain annual cultivation. Climate‘and geology have combined to give Canada an arable-land acreage equivalent of that of France—and France is a net importer of food. Canada contains only 14 million acres that can be described as truly excellent for agriculture and capable of high yield. Most of this so-called prime land is in southern Ontario and BC’S Okanagan and Fraser valleys. Yet these are the very acres being consumed by urban pressures. (For three years an NDP-imposed freeze on development of BC prime farmland has been in effect. Both farmers and developers must now persuade a special commission that proposed land-use changes are necessary. So far. Premier Bill Bennett’s Social Credit government has not moved to reverse the law.)

Although 170 million acres are now in agricultural use in Canada (a mere 7.5% of

the total land area of the country), not much more—60 million acres at most—is available for future cultivation. The irony is that the very best farmland is disappearing even as—and because—the country is gaining population. Between 1966 and 1971 one million acres, 10% of the improved farmland in southern Ontario, was taken out of production. Not surprisingly, Ontario now must import beef, pork, poultry and dairy products which were supplied by the province’s own farms in 1962. Agriculture Canada estimates that

land equivalent to a 250-acre farm is taken out of production somewhere in Canada every day. Moreover, the prospect of Canadian farmers making better use of less land is not encouraging. Although agricultural technology made immense strides during the past century—increasing yield per acre fivefold while cutting the number of farm workers per acre in half—further major advances are now thought unlikely.

Agriculture in Canada is big business, and business seems to be good. Last year was spectacularly good, with total crop receipts almost triple their level in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Agriculture Canada projects crop receipts in 1976 will be about 8% below the $4.7 billion level of 1975. In certain sectors, though, yields are up this year. Potatoes are in abundant supply, up 10% over 1975. The Prairie grain crop again is excellent, thanks to sustained good

weather throughout the growing season. The 1976 U.S. grain crop is also above average. These supplies far outstrip domestic needs in North America but come nowhere near worldwide consumption. The problem is that the people most needing North American food can least afford to pay for it. Selling grain to hard-pressed African and Asian countries at cut-rate prices is now considered to be counter-productive. So is giving it away. Writing in the current issue of Scientific American, Sterling Wortman, president of the International Agriculture Development Service, predicts: “Larger harvests in the few remaining surplus production countries, notably the United States, Canada and Australia, are not the solutions to the problems of food and hunger in the world today. To continue to allocate free or lowcost food to governments that neglect their own rural areas is counter-productive. It simply allows governments to put off the tedious and unglamorous task of helping their own people to help themselves.”

While the Science Council seemed to feel Canada could double its food output by the year 2000, provided it adopted a national land-use policy, the fact that Canada’s population will be growing too will limit the food available for export. According to a British planner. Professor Alice Coleman of the University of London, any serious export cutbacks by the surplus countries would have “a disastrous inflationary effect” on world food prices. Miss Coleman, the author of a federal urban affairs ministry paper entitled Canadian Settlement And Environmental Planning, expressed doubt that Canada will be able to feed 30 million citizens by 2000. (The Science Council, which says 30 million would be a preferred population by that year, believes there will be 35 million people in Canada, based on current trends.)

Because of Canada’s perennial crop surpluses, which tend to keep local prices down, those who urge land-use freezes used to find it difficult to gain a hearing. But with the BC freeze and agitation in Ontario’s Niagara fruit belt over a proposed rezoning of 7,600 acres of Canada’s best farmland for urban development, a slow reversal may be under way. For the moment, though, Ontario is leaving land-use decisions in the hands of local governments which, says Jack Hill, general manager of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, “... can’t stand up under the pressure of local developers who helped them get elected, or farmers who seek to sell their land and retire.”

TERENCE DICKINSON