Government policies favour urban ignorance over the realities farmers face

Sylvain CharleboisIn Europe, there has been growing unrest for some time now, and with farmers’ protests reaching Paris, the media is beginning to pay closer attention to the situation. Countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Poland, and Romania have all felt the impact of the farmers’ movement.

Now, France and Paris are in the spotlight, and the situation is far from straightforward. It goes beyond a single law or regulation; we have reached a breaking point.

Essentially, as incomes stagnate in many sectors, costs related to water usage are on the rise, taxes on diesel and other fuels are accumulating, and the use of pesticides and herbicides is becoming more restricted. Additionally, the obligation to leave land fallow makes production more expensive and less productive.

The list of challenges farmers face is extensive. Over the years, elected officials who have chosen to prioritize the concerns of city dwellers, often disconnected from the realities of farmers, are pushing for changes that erode farmers’ control over their farms.

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As farmers’ frustration becomes increasingly evident, society remains deeply divided. France serves as a prime example of this division. While French farmers are marching to Paris this week to advocate for more lenient environmental regulations, protesters made a unique statement last weekend by splashing the Mona Lisa with soup, demanding stricter regulations.

The competing protests symbolize the ongoing struggle between urban and rural areas. With fewer than two percent of people living on farms today, these two groups no longer even want to understand each other.

All of this was foreseeable. Urban discontent is not primarily directed at farmers themselves. After all, farmers often rank high in terms of public trust, alongside firefighters, teachers, and healthcare professionals. Instead, it’s farming practices that are under scrutiny.

A similar situation exists, albeit to a lesser extent, right here in Canada. The urban-rural divide is widening because governments are imposing urban-centric values without considering the realities of agriculture. The fervent opposition to glyphosate, despite clear scientific evidence, and the introduction of additional environmental taxes without viable ecological and economic alternatives for farmers are just a few examples.

For a long time, it has been evident that urban residents are not particularly concerned about farmers and are inclined to listen to certain alarmist interest groups, some of which are state-funded. It’s quite perplexing.

While supply management exists in Canada, the farmers involved are often vocal but are not the ones in most need of assistance. They are simply better organized. Supply management works for dairy, eggs, and poultry, but the situation is more complex for other agricultural sectors, such as pork, beef, crops, grains, and horticultural production. These sectors struggle to make their voices heard and, more importantly, to be understood by city dwellers.

Governments, whose representatives primarily hail from urban areas, rely on voters who believe, for the most part, that food magically appears on grocery store shelves. Since 2015, this has become a reality in Ottawa. The lack of understanding about the hard work behind the safe and abundant food we are privileged to purchase every day affects public perceptions. We want to buy locally, free of hormones, additives, and other concerns, but these demands often come at a high cost, a fact well-known to farmers.

This ignorance has led us to this point and has, over time, provided us with short-sighted policies.

Granting our farmers the benefit of the doubt is crucial for developing more effective food policies. Unlike our grocery stores, which should be more attentive to our needs, farmers bear the brunt of fluctuating prices and have no control over the market.

We have lost sight of that reality in our pursuit of often excessive demands while preaching virtue.

Before the situation escalates further, let’s not forget that farmers are the foundation of our food systems.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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