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Brent H. Cameron: The key number that explains our food security

Commentary

The Liberal government’s planLiberal fertilizer reduction plan will exacerbate inflation and food prices https://www.ipolitics.ca/opinions/liberal-fertilizer-reduction-plan-will-exasperate-inflation-and-food-prices to drastically reduce fertilizer use in our agricultural industry in service of cutting Canada’s emissions has thrust our farmers squarely into the centre of our public discourse. This is a space they may be surprised to occupy. For decades they have worked in near anonymity, putting in the hours and the sweat equity to source a pipeline that begins in their field and ends in our fridges and plates with nary a passing thought from those further downstream.

Which is a shame—our food security is fundamental to the steady functioning of society. Without it, we very quickly don’t have much else. Farmers, very literally, provide the fuel that sustains our existence.

Yet depending on who is commenting, they are either noble stewards of the land or a scourging blight. They are either innovators or Luddites, struggling family business owners or rapacious exploiters of food budgets. They either work hard or not hard enough. They are either unsung heroes who support society or regressive malaprops who hold it back.

These conversations about farmers (and farming) are often one-sided as those being talked about are too busy working the land to be at the table.

I do not pretend to be an expert on the topic. In my younger days I did do some occasional farm work—both for my family and for neighbours—but farming is an immersive experience, and you can’t dabble at it.

My family homesteaded land in the 1850s and worked it for four solid generations. The first two were able to be farmers and nothing but. At the end of the Second World War, something changed, and my grandfather needed to earn income outside of what our dairy herd could provide—whether driving deliveries for the local Pepsi bottler or working on the roads crew for our municipality. That trend continued with my own parents. My father started with construction, then worked as a stationary engineer, and my mother was employed at an insurance broker’s office, all the while maintaining the herd.

Throughout the 1960s some pieces of land were sectioned off and sold as building lots, helping to shore up finances. In the early 1970s, it became necessary to sell both the remaining herd and the quota to my uncle.

There was the opening of a sandpit to supply two dump trucks for hire, shifts running heating plant boilers, or driving the township’s only road grader. There was the dabbling in boarding horses, raising nutria for their pelts, then rabbits, and finally sheep. Then were the years you took off hay from the fields to sell to farmers, followed by simply having the farmers come in and take it off themselves.

We are still here on this land, but there is less of it than there used to be, and it doesn’t produce food. I am the first generation of my family not to farm it. Moreover, my children are the first not to know farming from a practical hands-on perspective.

Our story is neither isolated nor unique—and that is why I think about the number 160.

That number roughly represents the number of people in North America in the early 2010s that a single farmer could feed with the surplus they produce.Fast Facts About Agriculture & Food https://www.fb.org/newsroom/fast-facts#:~:text=One%20U.S.%20farm%20feeds%20166,than%20what%20is%20now%20produced. In the 1940s, that number was around 18.

The number grew because farmers got better at what they do—with improved technology and methodsAgriculture’s connected future: How technology can yield new growth https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/agriculture/our-insights/agricultures-connected-future-how-technology-can-yield-new-growth—which is good. But it also grew because there are fewer farmers. For four generations my family contributed to one side of that ratio. Now, like most of you, we find ourselves on the other side, among the 160.

You can discount my family’s story as a subjective tale or self-indulgent narrative, but it would be unwise to discount the number of 160.

You see 160 means you can feed yourself without having to do any more or less scrounging than going to your grocery store, loading a cart, and running through the checkout. That number gives you the freedom to study science and literature, art, history, law, or medicine without worrying about hunger.

Human civilization developed only after we had the ability to produce enough food to free up people from that task. Despite its modern artifices, we are still operating on that basic premise. The human body cannot last beyond two weeks without nourishment, and a society unable to provide food to its population is not able to provide other things.

160 means life goes on normally. 150 means things get even more expensive than they already are. 140 means even higher costs and things running out on occasion. 130 means you rototill your pristine backyard and start a healthy-sized garden to supplement your pantry. Others can speculate on what 120 or lower would entail.

This is not to say that farmers cannot be more productive or better at what they do, but much of the “advice” is coming from those who have no context for the opinion, no direct knowledge other than consuming the product. Eating a steak or a salad is no more of a qualification to advise a farmer than being a passenger on an Air Canada flight makes you certified to take the controls of a 747.

Shortages brought about by the war in Ukraine,The war in Ukraine triggered a global food shortage https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2022/06/14/the-war-in-ukraine-triggered-a-global-food-shortage/ badly conceived policies in Sri Lanka,Sri Lanka’s organic farming disaster, explained https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2022/7/15/23218969/sri-lanka-organic-fertilizer-pesticide-agriculture-farming or the farm protests in the NetherlandsWhy Dutch farmers are protesting over emissions cuts https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-62335287 are making people nervous about food security, but not so much as to remember the number 160. The federal government should familiarize itself with that number and everything it represents before it commits too quickly to its current climate change policies.

160 represents what you don’t know but take for granted. It’s not controlled by a politician, a banker or lawyer, an academic, or a political pundit. It is determined solely by people who, like the number itself, we don’t know but take for granted.

That needs to change.

Opinion: Classical liberal votes are up for grabs in Canada—will anyone take them?

Commentary

We are in the somewhat awkward position, as classical liberals who are neither big-C nor small-c conservatives, of having been asked to discuss classical liberalism as a faction of the conservative movement. We see why an alliance has been possible between classical liberals and conservatives, but we don’t think that compatibility can be counted on. It’s wrong to assume, as our country navigates its political realignment, that old alliances will—or should—hold. 

F.A. Hayek famously declared that he was not a conservativeWhy I Am Not a Conservative https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/articles/hayek-why-i-am-not-conservative.pdf and proceeded to offer a definition of conservatismHayek was not a conservative. Here’s why. https://www.econlib.org/hayek-was-not-a-conservative-heres-why/ distinct from liberalism. Hayek says—and we agree—that conservatives prefer what’s tried and true to solutions grounded in theory, that conservatives focus on getting to specific outcomes rather than rules that let people choose their own paths, and that from a liberal perspective conservatives are over-sceptical of open-ended change and not sceptical enough of authority. 

Conservatives, as Ben Woodfinden recently argued,A Tory impulse and anti-Laurentian ideas drive Canadian conservatism https://thehub.ca/2022-08-17/ben-woodfinden-a-tory-impulse-and-anti-laurentian-ideas-drive-canadian-conservatism/ want to conserve what they see as valuable. Their policy goals come from where we’ve already been and what we’ve already done. Conservative policy goals don’t come from first principles about a never-realized ideal. 

Following McGill’s Jacob T. Levy, we argue that liberals, in contrast, are committed—regardless of the institutions from which they start—to robust due process and the rule of law, to religious liberty, to freedom of speech and association, to support for markets, and to democratic control of the legislative and executive branches of government. 

The term classical liberal is only used in North America. In much of the world, the term “liberal” is used to describe people who oppose institutionalized and especially government-backed power and want limited government intervention in people’s economic and personal lives. However, the emergence and growth in the 20th century of welfare liberalism—which advocates for more government regulation and redistribution—led to the adoption of terms like “classical liberal” and “libertarian” to differentiate. 

For a long time, Canadian conservatism could be described as a fusion of support for freer markets (like those espoused by classical liberals) with social conservatism. But in the 21st century, most obviously since 2016, the issues on which parties seek the support of voters have changed. 

The historian Stephen Davies has predicted that the new dividing line between parties will be nationalism against international cosmopolitanism. This new order is reflected in the emerging scepticism of both immigration and trade in parties of the right—an example is the reshoring strategy advocated by our friend Sean Speer. Hostility to internationalism is why the World Economic Forum has become a touchstone to some in Canadian politics. 

As voters and parties realign themselves to discover what brings people together under different political tents, it’s less obvious what Canadian conservatism will become. Classical liberals and conservatives did not support the policies on which we’ve agreed in the past for the same reasons, and we should not expect conservatives to respond the same way to changing political realities as we would. 

Sean Speer provided a conservative account of fusionism.Canadian conservatism is powered by fusion https://thehub.ca/2022-08-12/sean-speer-canadian-conservatism-is-powered-by-fusion/ It includes, he says, a commitment by social conservatives not to interfere with most individual choices, even where conservatives hold strong beliefs. But their opposition to government control was not a concession to the classical liberals under the big conservative tent, but an acknowledgement that socially conservative views had fallen out of the mainstream. As more of their views became political non-starters, social conservatives’ policy goals moved to the back burner. 

The defining policy debate of the late twentieth century was a bigger picture one, of broadly free markets versus government-controlled economies. When Canadian conservatives in the Cold War took the side of markets, they allied themselves with liberals. Tools like privatization and trade were seen as important to opposing the power and influence of the Soviet Union by even market-skeptical conservatives. Again the alliance was politically convenient. 

Liberals shouldn’t count on hands-off social conservatism, nor on a conservatism that sees free markets in line with conservative goals. Political convenience is unreliable during political realignment. 

Liberals’ belief that individuals know what’s best for themselves leads us to believe that social change should come through persuasion rather than using the law. Commitment to persuasion takes sweeping social change by government edict off the table for liberals in a way that it’s not for progressives, who aim to enforce “progress” through legislation. The resulting gradualism is often confused by conservatives for a commitment to conservation. But liberals do not support standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”, either. Where progressives agree with liberals, classical liberals have no desire to stop progress, we just won’t force it through.

“Political convenience is unreliable during political realignment.”

Classical liberalism emphasizes respect for individuals to make their own choices. Both progressives and conservatives have ideas of the good life towards which society ought to be moved. Sean Speer points to “the all-important question: freedom for what?” Liberals, and especially classical liberals, answer: that’s too important a question for us to decide for you, or for all of us to try to decide together.

With a political consensus around (mostly) free markets and (mostly) free social decisions, it was tempting for liberals to believe that the moral arc of history is one of liberation and progress. 

The political realignment has been a harsh wake-up call. Political and economic progress is more uneven and less certain than we previously believed. Debates we thought were settled have once again become live issues. 

We suspect that fusionism is dead. We’re not of one mind about how friendly conservatives have recently been to liberalism, but we agree that the disintegration of the old political centre is probably bad for liberalism, at least in the short term. Conservatives are increasingly focused on culture wars in a way that puts them at odds with classical liberals. 

We don’t know precisely where the new areas of agreement between conservatives and classical liberals will be, but we hope they will not disappear completely. Potentially fertile ground for cooperation could include changes to expand housing supply or educational choice. 

Conservatives (and progressives!) hoping to ally with liberals will need to keep in mind that old alliances, like old policy victories, can’t be taken for granted. Classical liberals, for our part, should embrace being accessible voters rather than part of the conservative, or anyone’s, political base.