3/25/2014 CSOC808, Module7- Topics andLearning Objectives
Topics and Learning Objectives
The Canadian farm crisis
Historical changes in agricultural systems
Positive and negative consequences of global industrial agriculture
By the end of this module, you should be able to:
List some reasons why Canadian agriculture is in crisis.
Outline ways in which capitalism and the profit motive has influenced agriculture.
Explain some of the criticisms against globalized industrial agriculture and the motivations behind the
food sovereignty movement.
Critical Perspectives in Food Studies, Chapters 6 and 10
In the two required chapters for this module, you read about the development of agriculture historically. Here’s
a poll question to get you thinking about this more deeply.
Considering the technological advances in farming over the past
several generations, have the lives of Canadian farmers improved,
worsened or stayed the same since the 1920s?
Keep your initial thoughts in mind over the next few pages. Perhaps you will find a few facts about farming
Global Industrial Agriculture: Introduction
Before the mid-term, we looked mainly at issues in food consumption: how people buy, prepare, and eat food,
and the myriad factors influencing these food decisions. Beginning with this module, we turn to issues in food
production. Although consumption and production are always intertwined, and it’s difficult to speak about one
without considering the other, our starting point from now on will be production.
A good place to start our investigation of food production is to “pan out” from our food habits to look at how
most of our food is made in the age of global industrial agriculture. We will also look at some important political
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economic relations and government policies that underpin this agro-food system.
Plummeting Farmer Incomes
Figure 7.1: VHS case for 1973 animated film, Charlotte’s Web, based on the 1952 novel.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Troydevinny546, 2012
Many of us grew up with idyllic images of agriculture, from nursery songs like “Old McDonald had a Farm” to
the children’s book (and now movie franchise) Charlotte’s Web (Figure 7.1). We might even imagine farms as
peaceful, happy places where humans and livestock work together in beautiful nature to create food for
others. Indeed, food industry marketing tries to re-create these traditional, pastoral images on purpose. The
reality of farming in Canada and elsewhere is in stark contrast to these images. As you read in Chapter 10, we
are now facing a “Farm Crisis.”
But what is the crisis?
Take a look at Figure 7.2, below. What were the net incomes, per farm, in 1926? What about 1976? What
about from 2001 to 2005?
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Figure 7.2: Farm net incomes in Canada, 1926 –2005.
Source: National Farmers’ Union of Canada, The Farm Crisis and Corporate Profits (p. 1), 2005
You no doubt observed that farm incomes these days are less than zero! In other words, not only are farmers
not profiting from their farms but they are even losing money.
Most Canadian farmers are only able to survive because of off-farm income (other jobs) and government farm
aid (NFU, 2012). Many others are simply going out of busines— Canada has lost two-thirds of its farmers
since 1941 (NFU, 2012). Further, young people are not entering the farming sector. The average age of
Canadian farmers in 2011 was 54 (NFU, 2012). Clearly, this is a dire state of affairs that, of course, affects our
access to food.
How did this come to be? To understand the situation, we need to back up a few years to the post-war period,
which we will explore on the next page.
Changes in Agriculture Post World War II
As you read in Chapter 10, there have been many changes in agricultural technology over the years, with the
most rapid changes happening since World War II. In this period, crop researchers began to develop high-
yielding crop varieties (e.g., wheat) that produced many more tons per hectare. However, these new varieties
were dependent on agricultural chemicals. In fact, they were often more productive because they were bred to
absorb more chemical fertilizer than older varieties. Also, since the new varieties were grown in monocultures
(large areas of the same crop), they were more vulnerable to pests and needed chemical pesticides. On page
157 of the textbook, Wiebe describes in detail the dramatic rise in chemical use on Canadian farms because
of these changes.
Ask yourself: How does this relate to the current farm crisis?
The cost-price squeeze
Wiebe introduces the important term cost-price squeeze. Table 7.1 illustrates this term well. Take a close look
at the numbers: What do you notice about farming expenses as a percentage of gross revenues over time?
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Table 7.1. Average Canadian Farm Revenues, Expenses, and Incomes, 1950 –2000s
Decade Gross Revenues Expenses Incomes
1950s $31,428 $16,703 $14,725
1980s $101,875 $95,497 $6,78
2000s $134,406 $139,921 $-6,987
Source: National Farmers' Union, "Farmers, the food chain and agriculture policies in Canada in
relation to the right to food," 2013
What has happened to farmer expenses as a percentage of
farmer gross revenues over time? (What were expenses as a
percentage of revenues in the 1950s compared to in the 1980s
In other words, farmer incomes are decreasing despite the increasing revenues because their expenses
(often called “inputs”) are so high. This explains the cost-price squeeze. It’s also useful to remember the
The cost-price squeeze is the difference between the cost of farm inputs (e.g., agro-chemicals,
machinery, seeds, antibiotics, etc.) and the price farmers receive for their products.
The cost of inputs is continually rising, while the cost of farm products has remained fairly constant or
have even fallen in the past 50 years. (Take note of Wiebe’s examples of this on page 162.)
The result of the cost-price squeeze is that many Canadian farmers are going out of business. Those that
remain dedicated to farming resort to:
Off-farm income (mentioned above)
This is why Wiebe mentions “killer debts” among farmers.
Government Policy and Legislation
Government decisions also contribute to the farm crisis. As Wiebe notes, while some government decisions
can be helpful to farmers, many actually benefit agro-chemical companies to the detriment of small, family
farms. One good example of this is plant breeder's rights legislation in Canada. Farmers have been
saving seeds from the previous year’s crop for the next year’s crop for generations. This practice, along with
that of exchanging and selling seeds within the farm community, has meant that farmers could reduce costs
and have a degree of self-sufficiency.
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Figure 7.3: Harvesters in a wheat field in Alberta, 1928.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, 1928
With the new legislation, this practice has changed. How? What does Wiebe say?
What is the consequence of plant breeder’s rights legislation for
There is also the issue of government farm programs (aid). As Wiebe points out, government agricultural
policy is focused on increasing crop yields for food export. The idea is to simultaneously make Canada
competitive on the world market and help farmers survive by encouraging them to increase their farm size and
productivity. For these reasons, the majority of farm program money goes to large farms. Meanwhile, small,
family farm— including farms that attempt to use sustainable pra—tireceive less government aid, with
many going out of business.
Farmer Share of the Food Dollar
You may have heard in the news that the cost of food is rising. In fact, food prices have gone up dramatically
in the past five years (Brogan, 2013). Does this help address the farm crisis?
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Not really. This is because farmers receive a small percentage of the price you pay in a typical grocery store
or restaurant for food. The rest of the money goes to the all of the other actors in the food system that are
involved from the farm gate to your plate. Can you guess how much farmers receive from the price you pay for
What percentage of the food dollar do Canadian farmers receive?
Below is a visual representation of all of the other actors in the food system that take a cut. The image
represents the U.S. case, but the Canadian case is similar.
Figure 7.4: Food system actors and their share of the food dollar.
Source: Canning, Patrick. (2011). A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series. Washington, DC: USDA
Economic Research Service.
This partly explains the recent interest among Canadians in farmers’ markets. The idea is that when you buy
directly from farmers (and cook more from the raw ingredients that farmers sell rather than buying packaged
or restaurant food), farmers receive a greater share of your food dollar.
The First Great Food Revolution (15,000 to 5,000 BCE)
As you read in Chapters 6 and 10 for this week, farming has undergone great changes since the advent of
agriculture. In Chapter 6, Albritton talks about two great food revolutions. In this module, we will concentrate
on what he calls the “Second Great Food Revolution.”
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To provide some context, let’s do a quick refresher from Chapter 6.
What happened during what Albritton calls the “First Great Food Revolution”?
a. The advent of cooking. Humans began to apply heat to food.
b. The advent of agriculture. Humans began to grow plants and raise animals rather than just
gathering and hunting.
c. The advent of food preservation. Humans began to use salting and smoking techniques to
preserve food rather than eating what was hunted and gathered right away.
This revolution was important because it created a surplus of food. One farmer created more food than could
be eaten in his or her own household. This meant that some people didn’t have to farm. The time that was
freed up for those who weren’t involved in farm labour could then be put to other uses. This led to the
development of class stratification (e.g., farmers versus merchants versus land owners). It also contributed to
the development of government and the state.
The Second Great Food Revolution (1945 to Present)
What Albritton calls the “Second Great Food Revolution” was much more recent, occurring in the post-war
What happened during what Albritton calls the “Second Great Food Revolution”?
a. Canadian farmers began exporting food for the first time.
b. Farmers began using artificial fertilizer.
c. Capitalism took over food production in general.
This means, more specifically, that companies began selling products to farmers that farmers used to provide
Answer the following questions based on the readings and/or by making an educated guess.
1. During the Second Great Food Revolution:
What were horses (which could be bred from one generation to the next) replaced by?
What was manure (provided by farm livestock) replaced by?
What was the farming practice of saving seeds from one year’s harvest to the next year’s replaced by?
What was natural pest control (e.g., planting a variety of different crops rather than monoculture)
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(Check your answers on page 95 of the text.)
In other words, control and profit in agriculture gradually moved from farmers to corporations.
Albritton uses the term “revolution” to talk about the capitalist take over of agriculture because he
sees it as a positive change.
Industrial Agriculture: Proponent Views
Some commentators argue that capitalism’s take over of agriculture (what we will from now on call “industrial
agriculture”) has been generally beneficial. They note that the development of more advanced crop varieties
and agro-chemicals has meant that farm yields are much higher and harvests more predictable. The
International Food Policy Institute, for example, suggests that because of these changes, “most industrial
countries achieved sustained food surpluses by the second half of the 20th century, and eliminated the threat
of starvation” (Hazel, 2002, p. 1).
This claim is also made in relation to countries in the global South (i.e., developing countries), where a so-
called Green Revolution took place, albeit later in time.
The Green Revolution
In the post-war period, countries in Latin America and Asia (e.g., India, Mexico) faced hunger and malnutrition
and, in some areas, widespread famine. In the late 1960s, the American Rockefeller and Ford foundations
launched an international agricultural research program that aimed to bring new agro-chemical products and
technologies from the global North (i.e., developed countries) to these poorer nations. The increase in
agricultural yields in these countries that resulted from the American intervention prompted then Administrator
of the US Agency for International Development, William Gaud, to announce in 1968:
Record yields, harvests of unprecedented size and crops now in th