Sustainable agriculture: Canadian institute offers definition, recommends path

October 30, 2005

A landmark discussion paper, published by the Agricultural Institute of Canada, proposes that the GST or some other levy be applied to groceries to help achieve sustainable agriculture and staunch a potentially disastrous collapse of smaller sized farms.

The paper (online at www.aic.ca/issues/AIC_discussion_paper_Final_ENG.pdf), commissioned by Canada's foremost agricultural institute to help catalyze a national roadmap to sustainable agriculture, also calls for governments to use immigration policies to bolster declining rural farming communities.

Published on the eve of AIC's annual meeting (Quebec City, Nov. 6-9), the paper says Canadians eat the world's cheapest food as farmers' incomes wither, small farms vanish, rural communities decline and megafarms mushroom, with major consequences underway for future environmental conditions and food safety.

The discussion paper says making agriculture sustainable is essential as populations grow but can only happen if all Canadians help shoulder the load.

Adding a levy to groceries, with rebates for low-income citizens, would be the simplest way to create a fair levy to help farmers meet growing public demands for safe food produced in ways that do not sacrifice the environment, the discussion paper says.

"Preferably a last resort as a way to raise resources to ensure economic viability for agricultural producers, but a justifiable one none the less, such a measure could be implemented as a sales tax on food," says the paper, co-authored by agricultural analyst and writer Hugh Maynard.

"Farmers and other social groups fought to exclude food when the GST was enacted in 1991 on the argument that there would be a public backlash and that it was an unjust tax for low-income families given the essential nature of foodstuffs. Sales taxes are now common place, and tax rebate measures have been instituted based on income levels. The 7% GST alone on grocery store sales would generate an estimated $3.3 billion annually, still a considerable sum if only half of it were to be dedicated to supporting economic viability measures for farmers linked to sustainability goals and objectives."

The paper says such a move would cost Canadian consumers just one-fifth of 1 percent of disposable income.

The recommendations are among a suite of measures outlined in the paper, "Big Farms, Small Farms - Strategies in Sustainable Agriculture to Fit All Sizes," to be presented to Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Andy Mitchell and formally launched at the annual meeting Nov. 7.

The paper says sustainable agriculture has five characteristics:Just as small hardware stores are disappearing in the shadow of big-box retail outlets, small farms are being crowded out economically by the intensification of agriculture. Just 2% of farms now produce 35% of food in Canada and the trend towards larger farms continues.

"Coupled with that trend, though, are growing concerns about food safety and the environment," says AIC Board President Kim Shukla.

"If Canadians are truly concerned about how food is produced, about values beyond prices and profits, the nation needs to support measures that produce sustainable agriculture."

The major issues around agricultural sustainability are water quality and use, air quality, soil, livestock, energy, biodiversity, income risks, food safety and rural development, according to the paper.

"One thing is clear: if Canada is to continue producing safe and nutritious food for itself and help feed some 9 billion-plus people worldwide projected by 2050 without depleting its natural resources, then progress in terms of sustainability - however it's defined and applied - must be achieved, and quickly," says Ms. Shukla.

For Canadian farms to be economically viable and sustainable, agricultural policy and programs need to mimic those in the USA and Europe that integrate ecological parameters into income support measures, according to the paper.

"These also need to go further than just eco-compliance and provide income assistance through environmental enhancement programs where all of society benefits from the results, such as protecting wetlands."

Other recommendations include:

Using immigration policies to bolster rural communities:

"Canada is a country that was founded on immigration and continues to grow through an influx of new arrivals in the 21st Century - few of whom choose to settle in rural communities," the paper notes, suggesting:

"Corn is no longer grown just for the kernel but for the starches and oils - both indigenous and modified - that are segregated and reassembled as something else," the paper notes. "And nanoscience will take this even further, with the ability to synthesize proteins and other molecular substances.

"This will have significant bearing on the application of definitions such as 'substantial equivalence' and 'novel foods.' Such capacity has huge implications for questions of sustainability, and although there are no ready answers now, leaving the debate until after these products hit the supermarket shelves will be an abdication of the scientific discourse."

Minimizing environmental risks To minimize environmental risks and conserve natural resources, the paper recommends:

"In short, unfettered development chased by unlimited production is unsustainable."
-end-
Agricultural Institute of Canada
The Agricultural Institute of Canada (AIC) represents individuals and organizations involved in Canadian Agriculture, food, environment and health, providing them opportunities for involvement in AIC activities, connection to a broad network of credible members and a voice for their views on food sufficiency, environment and food safety

Agricultural Institute of Canada

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