Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Women farmers get short-changed

Women farmers get short-changed

Women farmers account for more than half of the world’s food production, but get short-changed on everything from wages to land ownership to extension services.
In Africa, women farmers account for about 80 per cent of food production, but in many countries can’t own land, get paid a pittance and are neglected by extension staff, 85 per cent of them males.
In South Asia and the Middle East women are paid less than men for part-time work that many require to supplement farming income.
Danielle Nierenberg and Syyada Burney outline the situation in a new report from the Worldwatch Institute. It’s posted on the internet at 


Monday, July 30, 2012

Chicken industry plans are secret

The chicken industry is intent on keeping its plan for the industry a deep, dark secret.

In a response to a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act, the government has censored all but two tiny graphs from 17-page document.

On the covering page is a highlighted statement that all of the contents are “proprietary and confidential and for the exclusive use of the Chicken Industry Advisory Committee, a committee of the Chicken Farmers of Ontario (marketing board).”

The committee was formed by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs under its Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission.

The commission also appointed the chairman (its vice-chairman, Elmer Buchanan) to chair the committee and provided a couple of members.

Others on the committee represent the marketing board and the Association of Ontario Chicken Processors. 

The Ontario Independent Poultry Producers association was denied a seat at the table.

The slim pickings that are revealed as a result of Freedom of Information point to a radical change in the entire structure and mission for the chicken industry.

Instead of the chicken board running supply management for farmers, it makes a call to “modify pricing mechanism to align producer/processor incentives.”

The chicken board has authority to price birds to recover the full cost of production plus a reasonable return on labour, management and investment. It says nothing about processor interests.

The graph also calls for producers and processors to “collaboratively develop a new allocation approach.” It’s difficult to judge whether that is happening as a result of the deal to stop trade in live chickens across the Ontario-Quebec border.

It also calls for efforts to “build a business partnership culture.”

Under a heading to grow the market, the graph says they will “continuously identify and pursue efficiency across the value chain.”

More important, it says they will “implement target marketing to grow consumption and preference” and will “capitalize on the potential in the Market Development Program, focusing on high value opportunities.”

That implies a radical overhaul of how the Ontario chicken board allocates any “market development” quota it obtains from the national agency. It has been sharing that pro rata among all processors, making it difficult for a single company with a bright idea to exploit that potential.

A case in point is CAMI International Poultry Inc. of Welland which has developed a large market for New York dressed (head and feet on) chickens that are hand-slaughtered and air-chilled to satisfy the demand from the Chinese market in the Toronto area.

The chicken board has so far refused to supply CAMI with enough chicken to maintain its markets after the no-trade deal with Quebec takes effect in September.

It has enough "market development" quota to satisfy CAMI, but has spread it around all processors, including the biggest ones who have said they don't want any increase in Ontario's allocation frpm tjhe national agency under this program.

Gray wants separate trial on egg grading

TORONTO – Allison Webster, lawyer for L.H. Gray and Son Ltd., sought court approval here today to gain what amounts to a separate trial on the issue of whether the company included eggs that do not qualify in cartons marked Grade A.

She contends that the company never did include cracked or dirty eggs in what it sold as Grade A product.

Whistleblower Norman Bourdeau has alleged that electronic grading records he took from the company indicate that Gray did precisely that, and over an extended period of more than 10 years. Webster has gagged Bourdeau with court orders since he circulated his allegations.

While Webster wants a “summary judgement” on this issue, she is also fighting to keep Gray’s grading records out of court.

It’s difficult to understand how the court could decide Gray’s guilt or innocence without having those records.

They are, contends lawyer Donald Good, acting for Sweda Farms Ltd. and Best Choice Eggs, at the heart of a lawsuit accusing Gray, Burnbrae Farms Ltd. and the Ontario egg board of conspiring to drive Best Choice out of the egg-grading business.

At this stage, Webster has only requested a “summary judgement” on the issue.

It will probably take weeks, if not months, for the court to decide whether to grant a hearing on that separate issue.

Webster also sought to delay the next court date to deal with Good’s motions to get at the egg-grading data. That hearing has been set for Oct. 25 and 26.

Today's hearing was added to the court docket long after the official docket was posted, meaning that it was difficult for the public to find where it was held.

Food aid helps the rich

The Guardian newspaper in England has discovered that two-thirds of the $1 billion the U.S. spends on food aid goes to Cargill, ADM and Bunge.

It may be a surprise to The Guardian’s staff and readers, but not to those who are familiar with food aid and U.S. politics.

In fact, the U.S. is one of the very few holdouts on an international gentlemen’s agreement on how to handle food aid.

The U.S. flouts that agreement by insisting that all its grain donations go through unionized grain terminals and are shipped on U.S. vessels. That greatly increases costs.

The U.S. also insists that its food aid be U.S.-grown crops, including rice that is heavily subsidized – eg. $4 billion per year in Louisianna alone.

Other countries, including Canada, buy as much as they can as close as possible to the area of need. The aim is to encourage local agriculture to meet local needs.

Other countries shop for transportation bargains.

If the World Trade Organization members could get their act together and finalize a new deal, it would include an agreement already made to convert the gentlemen’s agreement into a binding commitment complete with WTO disciplines for infractions.

But in the meantime, U.S. food aid flows mainly to people such as large-scale rice growers in the Southern United States, the largest grain-handling companies, union members and U.S. shipping companies

Conversion out of sow stalls coming

The pressure to take sows out of gestation stalls might not be as expensive as some people think, says Steve Meyer, head of Paragon Economics at Adel, Iowa.

Most of the retailers’ announcements that they want pork from stall-free farms give farmers 10 to 15 years to make the transition.

That, says Meyer, is long enough for current stalls and crates to wear out and need replacing.

He says the bigger issue now is whether the Humane Society of United States will change its stand on putting sows in crates for 35 days after farrowing.

That’s when embryos are attaching, so sows need to be safe and quiet, not fighting as is common when they first move into group pens.

“You wean the sow and put them in the stall until they’re confirmed pregnant. That’s a critical period,” Meyer says.

“If you have to mix those sows right after farrowing it’s going to get ugly, because then it’s going to affect productivity.” 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Cardboard tomatoes

I have just finished reading Tomatoland, by Larry Estabrook, and learned a great deal - most of it not very nice - about how Floridians grow most of the tomatoes we eat when local ones are not available.

Most of the book is about the workers who are exploited. Many are illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Central American countries and because they are afraid of being caught, they are open to exploitation. Some are literally slaves - bought and sold by "owners", living in squalid conditions and never earning enough to get out of debt. 

The tomatoes grow on sand, so all of the nutrients are supplied, mainly as chemical fertilizer. There is a hardpan layer below the sand which holds rainwater and irrigation water; if there's too much, the fields are drained; if there's not enough, they are irrigated.

The fields are fumigated with one of the most toxic pesticides on the market, a product that also is far more damaging to the ozone layer than hydrocarbofurans that were banned years ago.

Because Florida is so humid and hot, pests and diseases are a major threat. Pesticides are the answer. More types and greater volumes are applied to Florida tomato fields than for any other vegetable crop. Unfortunately, all too often the workers are soaked in pesticides.

The tragedies that arise out of that pesticide exposure are horrifying, gruesome, unacceptable.

And the tomatoes are crap. They are picked green as grass. In fact, if they show the slightest tinge of pink, they are culled. They turn red only because they are gassed with ethylene.

In the last 50 years, plant breeding and field management practices have reduced nutrients - 30 per cent less vitamin C, 30 per cent less thiamin, 19 per cent less niacin, 62 per cent less calcium. However, the average Florida tomato has 14 times as much sodium.

The book is about tomatoes, but too many of aspects explored in this book are common to too many modern fruits and vegetables. I recall writing columns for the Waterloo Region Record 30 years ago, lamenting that plant breeders focus exclusively on factors deemed important by farmers, such as yield, disease resistance and supermarket appearance while ignoring nutritional content and taste.

So today we can eat more, enjoy it less and battle obesity.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Burnbrae exec on Australian board

Australians say they are close to forming a Centre for Food Integrity.

They have chosen a board of directors which includes Craig Hunter, who is executive vice-president, operations, for Joe Hudson’s Burnbrae Farms.

One wonders whether the Australians know that Burnbrae is part of a lawsuit accusing the company of conspiracy to drive a tiny egg-grading competitor out of business.

One of the accusations is that Burnbrae and L.H.  Gray and Son Ltd. shipped eggs to the tiny company, when it said it was short of enough to meet Canadian demand, that were such poor quality that many were filthy dirty and broken.

They were so bad that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency condemned them on the spot.

Yet Burnbrae and Gray insist that they have done nothing wrong.

However, Gray's lawyers adamantly refuse to turn over egg-grading and Canadian Food Inspection Agency records to the court.

Donald Good, lawyer for the little guy, says that everything Gray did, Burnbrae also did. 

Good's client has seen electronic grading records from Gray's operations, but not Burnbrae's, so Good's contention that they both did the same things remains to be proven in court.

Beef carcass weights reaching limit

Kevin Grier, market analyst for the George Morris Centre, says beef carcass weights are reaching the limit of consumer acceptance and if they continue to increase, Canadians will be buying less beef.

Some buyers have been expressing concerns about increasing carcass weights for more than 20 years, arguing that portion sizes are too large for restaurants and for meat-counter shoppers at supermarkets.

Typical weights for steer carcasses went from 700 pounds in 1987 to 725 in 1992 to 860 in 2011.

But Grier says both packers and farmers make more money from the bigger carcasses because most of their costs are per animal, not per pound.

An 850-pound carcass doesn’t turn as much profit for either the farmer or the packer as 950 pounds, which is the point at which most Canadian packers start discounting prices. In the United States, it’s 1,000 pounds.

Consumers appreciate the price break that comes with the greater efficiencies the farmers and packers experience with larger cattle, but Grier says there’s little room to take this further.

For one thing, retailers have been slicing beef thinner to keep the sticker and menu prices down. At some point, that impacts cooking quality.

For another thing, it’s hard to simply cut smaller portions for some products, such as T-bone steaks and strip loins, Grier says. That leaves consumers facing gigantic cuts on their plates – and high prices at the supermarket checkout.

Grier cites a couple of other factors driving weights higher, such as keeping calves on cheaper pasture and grass rations longer so they go into feedlots at higher weights and, given that they need at least 140 days on a high-grain ration to accumulate enough marbling to achieve Canada AAA of U.S. Choice grade, they end up heavier when they’re ready for market.

The other major factor is genetics that began changing in the 1960s when Canadians began importing large European breeds, such as Charolais and Simmental, and cross-breeding with smaller Angus, Shorthorn and Hereford cattle.

Hybrid vigour provided a huge economic boost, but the crosses also increased the size of the animals at a stage when they had enough marbling to achieve top grades.

Grier says this tug of interests between production efficiencies and consumer preferences plays out for almost all foods produced by Canadians.

He said it’s always a balancing act and one that each player in the system needs to keep in mind.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Farm subsidy benefits elusive

As a taxpayer, I'm thinking my politicians have spent $74 billion in farm subsidies over the last 30 years and I'm left with little more than a pig in a poke.

An analysis by Bob Seguin, former chief policy advisor to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and now head of the George Morris Centre, concludes that there is scant evidence that the subsidies did much to change anything.

In fact, sectors of the farming economy that got little or nothing – eg. greenhouse owners, vegetable and flower producers – have fared just as well as the rest.

There has been a trend to fewer and larger farms, but Seguin says that is also the result of management skills and improved technologies.

In fact, despite all the money spent, there have been no studies to determine how farmers spent or invested the money.

Seguin says that leaves the public to wonder “how these actually benefited the farm operations over time to reduce risks/improve viability” because those questions  “were rarely asked of the recipients.”

“So it is very difficult to know precisely what the benefits have been –to individuals, commodity groups, regions or to the overall agri-food sector over time, or over any program,” Seguin writes in a report posted on the George Morris Centre website this week.

“The lack of such funding did not limit competitiveness and innovation for those
farmers, or commodity groups, unable to always obtain such payments.,” Seguin says, citing the greenhouse, vegetable and flower growers.

‘Other examples of successful farm operations/commodity groups where limited public payments to address risk management needs/income supports did not limit that group’s competitive/innovation success can be found across Canada,” Seguin says.

His comments come in the midst of federal-provincial negotiations for policies and funding for the next five years.

Ethanol mandate remains in place

Tom Vilsack, the United States Secretary of Agriculture, says he’s not ready to reduce the government requirement for blending corn-distilled ethanol into gasoline.

About 40 per cent of U.S. corn goes to make ethanol.

Livestock and poultry groups recently sent him a letter, urging a reduction in the amount of corn that has to be used to distill ethanol so there will be more available to them to feed their livestock and poultry.

Corn prices have more than doubled to about $8 a bushel as drought spreads across cornfields in the Midwestern United States.

Vilsack told the Iowa Farm Bureau summit Tuesday that “now is not the time to change the Renewable Fuel Standard.”
“Some will want to use the drought as an excuse to change the Renewable Fuel Standard, but now is not the time,” Vilsack said.
President Obama meeting with Tom Vilsack
It's not, however, the agriculture department that is in charge of the ethanol mandate.
Vilsack said first he’s going to offer drought relief to livestock farms, such as opening more conservation reserve land to grazing and hay-making.
Vilsack is scheduled to brief the cabinet on the drought situation today.

Brazil’s corn selling fast

So now that we have a huge drought scare going, where are all of those critics of free trade who say we need to protect our markets so we can have food security?

Will they acknowledge that there is more food security in free global trade? I doubt it because they operate from emotion, not reason. They are fighting fears about change, they are steeped in national pride and community loyalties and their trusted farm leaders tell them they need to hang on to tradition.

But those who think more clear-headedly about the current drought panic that has driven corn prices to $8 a bushel are buying corn from Brazil.

Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest hog producer and pork packer, says it’s among those buying corn from Brazil, although so far it hasn’t said how much.

Paulo Molinari, consultant at Brazil-based Safras e Mercado, said corn is selling for about $290 US per tonne at Brazilian ports compared with $345 a tonne for U.S. corn at Gulf ports.

Shipping corn from Brazil to the U.S. costs $30 to $40 per ton.

"There's never been this big of a difference in price," Molinari said.

"Brazilian corn is almost always at the same level as in the Gulf of Mexico, if not higher."

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ontario board drops the hammer

Marvin Ungerman, the famous boxer turned chicken farmer, is ready to punch out the chicken marketing board.

He learned from his Quebec processor on Thursday that he will have to find a new processor in Ontario.

He was stunned that the ban on Quebec-Ontario trade in live chickens came so suddenly without any notice from the chicken board.

“I’m two weeks from placing my chicks, and now I have to suddenly make arrangements,” he said.

A staff person at the chicken board said he should have known this was coming because the board has been saying for months that the deal will take effect with the beginning of the next six-week quota period in September.

Ungerman said he’s not the only one who was caught by surprise. Even senior executives at Maple Leaf Foods Inc. were surprised, he said of a friend there.

Ungerman is also angry that the chicken board has been circulating a list of all of the Ontario farmers who were shipping birds to Quebec processors to Ontario chicken processors.

He said his out-of-province business ought to be confidential.

“I wondered why I was getting calls from Ontario processors,” he said, “asking me what I was going to do” after September.

He said he’s likely to end up being forced to ship to Maple Lodge Farms Ltd. “which I don’t want to do. I had experience with them before.”

Maple Lodge is apparently one of the Ontario processors who will be short of chicken as a result of the trading ban.

Quebec processors are looking for about 800,000 kilograms of chicken from their farmers to replace contracts they had with Ontario farmers.

What’s not clear is whether Quebec succeeded in getting enough additional quota to offset losses to Nadeau Poultry Ltd. in New Brunswick, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Maple Lodge.

As recently as last week, that demand was seen by some as a deal breaker.

Reserves to open to grazing

Some conservation reserves are likely to be opened soon to grazing cattle.

United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he’s going to open some conservation reserves for drought-stricken farmers because “llvestock operators in particular are impacted because what they expected to have their livestock graze on is not there or of sufficient quantity or quality as anticipated.

“The costs to replace it with feed obviously are going to be substantially higher, so some folks are starting the process of liquidating their herds,” Vilsack explained.

“They know at this point in time there is nothing else that can be done beyond the steps we have taken to open up more haying and grazing areas.

 “The sad reality is that Congress needs to do its work to get a disaster program in place to provide assistance to these producers,” he said.

He said the programs cannot be restarted by simply extending the 2008 farm bill and that their costs must be balanced in the broader context of a new farm bill.

He said nothing about reducing the mandatory percentage of ethanol that must be included in gasoline. Virtually all of the ethanol comes from corn distilleries which buy about 40 per cent of U.S. corn crops. 

Gray refusing to provide documents

TORONTO – Lawyers for L.H. Gray and Son Limited are refusing to hand over egg-grading records for the lawsuit filed by Svante Lind and his Best Choice Eggs business at Blackstock.

Lind’s lawyer has filed a motion in Superior Court here requesting the documents or else disciplinary action against Gray. The deadline is Oct. 25.

Lawyers for Lind, Gray, Burnbrae Farm and the Egg Farmers of Ontario marketing board met for a mediation conference in June, but Gray and Burnbrae failed to provide egg-grading data since 2002.
Lind’s lawyer, Donald Good of Ottawa, then filed his motion on July 10.

There are letters in the court files here, first one on June 19 from Good to Gray’s lawyer, Allison Webster, and to Burnbrae’s lawyer, David McCutcheon, seeking the grading documents.

Webster answered on June 21 that she would not turn over the grading records.

She wrote that “given the issues of relevancy and our serious concerns about confidentiality throughout this litigation, we cannot agree to produce this sensitive information to your clients and as such, I anticipate that a motion will be required to deal with the issue, as well as the documentation that continues to reside with the Supervisory Solicitor.”

Good filed the motion July 10.

The Supervisory Soliciitor reference is to electronic files taken by Norman Bourdeau, who was Gray’s information technology officer until Gray fired him. Because Bill Gray, president of the company, had ordered Bourdeau to destroy the files, the court put Bourdeau’s copies under the protection of a lawyer in Kitchener.

Webster has been trying to keep those files out of the court action, which is a lawsuit that Lind originally filed July 23, 2008, claiming Gray and Burnbrae and the egg board were trying to run him out of the egg-grading business.

That claim was later amended to bring all three under one lawsuit alleging the three conspired to drive Lind out of business. He sold Best Choice Eggs earlier this year.

Good said in his letter to Webster, and again in the motion he filed July 10, that “the grading data generated by the defendant (Gray) is critical to this litigation. The plaintiff (Lind) have (sic) requested this data and it was refused.”

Webster raised two more points in her June 21 letter of refusal to Good.

“Secondly you should be aware that given your client’s demands for damages, it will be necessary for our forensic experts to have access to your clients’ complete financial records over an extensive period of time.

She adds that “we will prepare a list of what we will require . . .”

Then she said Bourdeau was in Oshawa on June 15 when the mediation meeting took place, and she seeks assurances from Good that nothing that was discussed in that meeting was shared with Bourdeau.

“Given the very strict confidentiality agreement in place for the mediation procedure, you will understand how that information would cause concern for our client,” Webster wrote.

She asked for “confirmation that Mr. Bourdeau was not provided any information regarding the mediation by either yourself, Mr. Lind or anyone associated with your clients.”

The court documents also outline the defence that Gray has filed in response to the allegations.
Basically it is a blanket denial that Gray has done anything wrong.

As for cheating on grading by manipulating the settings on the automatic grading machines, the answer is that they were set according to “normal industry practice.”

What constitutes “normal industry practice” in Ontario is, however, at the heart of this case. Gray and Burnbrae together account for more than 90 per cent of the egg-grading business in the province and both have nation-wide operations.

There are documents in the court file about the machinery and the settings for detecting cracks and dirt.

Part of the grading data Good has requested is the settings Gray has used at its operations in Strathroy and Listowel since 2002 and, again in a separate mention, since 2010.

Good is also seeking all Canadian Food Inspection Agency records about issues that have arisen at Gray’s grading facilities. That includes records on grading, eggs that have been detained, etc.

Lind was frustrated when he applied to the federal government to import eggs that he could not buy in Ontario, and, as is normal practice, the government asked the egg marketing boards if they could fill the order.

Gray and Burnbrae filled the orders, but so many were cracked, broken or dirty that the shipments were condemned when Lind called in inspectors from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 

One of many questions is how those eggs managed to get through grading and CFIA inspection at Burnbrae and Gray facilities before being shipped to Lind’s plant at Blackstock.


Cargill beef sickens 33

Hamburger processed at a Cargill plant at Wyalusing, Pennsylvania, has sickened 33 people.

The company has recalled about 29,300 pounds of 85 per cent lean hamburger over concerns that it might be contaminated with Salmonella enteriditis.

It’s possible that authorities will be checking records of imports of cull cattle from Canada as part of their investigation.

Buyers for U.S. packing plants, such as Richard (Butch) Clare of Aylmer Meat notoriety, buy cull cows for U.S. packers at auction markets, such as the Ontario Livestock Exchange north of Waterloo.

Dr. Doug Powell reports on his website, Barfblog, that “although the onset of illness happened during the week of June 6, 2012, it took six weeks of sleuthing to link illnesses in five case-patients to the ground beef products produced at this establishment based on epidemiologic and traceback investigations, as well as in-store reviews.”
Two of the five case-patients were hospitalized. Leftover product with no packaging information collected during the course of this investigation by the Vermont Department of Health tested positive for Salmonella Enteritidis with the outbreak strain.
This outbreak strain of Salmonella Enteritidis is drug sensitive, meaning antibiotics can be effective in treating patients who need them, Powell wrote.

U.S. slowly adopting food safety rules

The United States is in the midst of its biggest overhaul of food safety regulations in 70 years, but probably has 10 years to go before complete implementation.

The new rules will impact Canadian food processors that export products to the U.S. and probably will also impact Canadian farmers who ship cattle, hogs or sheep to U.S. packing plants.

The impact on farmers will likely flow from new traceability requirements. Congress is awaiting a report from a pilot program for raw and processed foods and most observers expect that report will recommend a traceability standard that stretches back to the origin of raw products - i.e. to farms.

“HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) is a good start,” said Mike Robach, vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs for Cargill, speaking recently at a national conference.

The law requires facilities to assess risk and identify “known or reasonably foreseeable “ hazards; develop a written analysis of the hazard; identify and implement preventive controls; monitor the effectiveness of preventive controls; develop necessary corrective actions; verify that effectiveness; and maintain records for two years with a reanalysis every three years.

“These controls should be outcome-based, not prescriptive,” Robach added. “That way the industry can continue to innovate … to improve overall safety.”

Traceability and recordkeeping are also part of the new rules, said Hank Lambert, general manager of Underwriters Laboratories’ Global Food and Water Businesses, which has developed a standard – UL 2757 – that sets out minimum requirements for data set transfer between trading partners to establish product traceability.

“The intent is not to impose new technologies but rather to take existing solutions and make them interoperable,” Lambert added.