The big grain corporations want to kill Canada's highly-successful grain marketing agency, which democratically represents the interests of 80,000 Western grain farmers.
Farmers and trade union members have more in common than you might think. There is a direct parallel between collective bargaining rights for unions and "orderly marketing" for farmers as represented by the Canadian Wheat Board. Art Macklin, a former National Farmers Union president and an elected board member, says the current World Trade Organization attack on the marketing agency, and the sympathetic ear the WTO is getting from Canada's new Conservative government, should be a wake-up call for everyone.
By Art Macklin
Ottawa (11 May 2006) - The negotiating position of the government of Canada at the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks has been to defend the democratic right of Canadian farmers to choose the kind of marketing institutions that will best serve their interests.
For western Canadian grain farmers, this means defending the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) with its statutory authority as the “single-desk” seller of wheat, durum and barley to all export markets and for domestic human consumption.
It is a democratic right because the CWB has a 15-person board of directors - 10 of whom are elected by farmers. Elections are held every four years and every grain farmer has the right to vote. The ballot is a preferential ballot, which means winning candidates must have more than 50% support in order to be elected.
If farmers want to change the board’s mandate, they can do that through the election process or by a plebiscite. Eight of the current farmer directors strongly believe that the CWB adds value to farmers and support the CWB’s orderly marketing authority.
The U.S. and EU want to remove that decision from Canadian farmers. At the WTO talks, their negotiators have been clear that they want an end to the single desk selling authority of organizations like the CWB. Organizations that, in trade lingo, are called State Trading Enterprises (STEs).
Farmers still control board
Despite the fact that the CWB is farmer-controlled, it is defined as an STE because it operates under the authority of an act of Parliament. That Act enables the CWB, on behalf of all 80,000 western Canadian grain farmers, to negotiate with buyers for the best achievable price for wheat, durum and barley. It also empowers the CWB to negotiate with railroads and other service providers for better service at a competitive cost.
The WTO position of the U.S. and EU, whose companies are some of our biggest competitors in the world market, would basically outlaw farmers’ ability to have an effective organization able to compete with these companies.
It would make it illegal for any farm group in any country to establish a marketing organization that had bargaining powers backed by legislation. It wouldn’t matter whether 51% or 100% of the farmers democratically voted in favour of the concept, as it would be illegal under WTO rules.
That’s when the handful of multinationals that already control more than 70% of the world grain trade will be truly unchallenged in their domination. For all intents and purposes, those companies would completely control the world grain trade and a basic staple of the world’s food supply.
Those companies are actively working behind the scenes to ensure that happens. On Feb. 2 of this year an organization calling itself Grain Vision sent a letter to Chuck Strahl, minister of agriculture and agri-good, also minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board, urging the government to change its negotiating position at the WTO. The letter was also addressed to David Emerson, minister of International trade.
"Cabinet needs to change this position (defending the CWB). We are asking you, as the ministers responsible for the negotiating position, to immediately put the need for this change on the Cabinet agenda.… We ask that you begin to provide greater consistency in Canada’s negotiating position by allowing our agricultural negotiators to explicitly bring the monopoly powers of state trading enterprises into the discussions…. For greater clarity, Grain Vision is recommending that the government of Canada be prepared to discuss and negotiate the matter of exporting state trading enterprises at the WTO."
Grain Vision is driven by corporate interests
Predictably, Grain Vision is driven by the interests of a collection of grain companies that stand to make a handsome profit from the end of the CWB. The list of companies signing the letter includes: Cargill Limited, Louis Dreyfus Canada Limited, Rahr Malting Canada Limited, Agricore United (a company whose largest single shareholder is ADM), Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (no longer a farmer cooperative), and James Richardson International Limited.
The letter was also signed by a handful of groups like the Western Canadian Wheat Growers and the Western Barley Growers. Those groups often claim to be a legitimate voice of farmers but in reality would not exist without the sponsorship largess of big corporations. Some urban chambers of commerce, some Alberta government mandated farm groups, the Grain Growers of Canada, and a few other groups also signed the letter.
If the Americans, Europeans and multinational grain companies get their way, new WTO rules will make it illegal for any group of farmers to organize and collectively bargain for export crops.
This becomes an issue of national sovereignty. The principle under attack is the democratic right of citizens or an economic group to have legislation enacted that empowers them to organize effectively in the interests of the majority. To deny Canadian grain farmers this right is also to put at risk this right for farmers producing products under the supply management system.
Trade unions, teachers unions, and many others could also be affected by this principle since they are empowered to bargain for their members by legislation under which a majority vote allows them to bargain for the whole group.
A wide cross-section of Canadian society should be concerned by the WTO attack on the CWB because they could be the next victims if the principle is established. NUPGE
Art Macklin, his wife Donna and their youngest son Nathan operate a family farm in the Peace River Country of northwestern Alberta. Mr. Macklin is a former president of the National Farmers Union and a current elected director of the Canadian Wheat Board.