Well-functioning regulatory systems tend to be invisible, until tragedy occurs. It is only after someone dies from drinking contaminated water or eating tainted food, a bank fails or a highway overpass collapses that the general public realizes that something is wrong.
Citizens rightly expect their governments to protect them and to act in the public interest. Too often governments fail to do so, instead responding to corporate pressure to weaken regulations so that businesses can cut costs and increase profits. Recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses – listeriosis in Canada, melamine contamination in China, and salmonella poisoning in the U.S. - underline the dangers to the public of cutting back on government oversight and inspections in the food system.
Yet these lessons seem to be lost on the minority Conservative federal government, which is threatening another of Canada’s highly successful regulatory systems. Legislation now before Parliament – Bill C-13 - would gut Canada’s world-class grain regulatory system.
Among other things, the bill would eliminate government inspections of grain delivered to major elevators around the country. Trained public inspectors, independent of the companies they oversee, now ensure that chemically-treated grain, dirt, glass, rodent excreta, and dangerous fungal and bacterial contaminants of grain are kept out of the human food system. The government proposes to leave grain companies free to arrange their own inspections of grain in their own facilities—an obvious conflict of interest that would increase the risk of safety and quality problems.
In the same bill, the government also plans to remove an established security program for grain producers that guarantees producers are paid for their grain deliveries even when buyers default or refuse to pay. Rather than providing prairie farmers greater stability to better withstand global economic difficulties, the government would increase their risk of catastrophic financial loss.
For many decades, two sister institutions – the Canadian Grain Commission and the Canadian Wheat Board – have worked side-by-side to create a uniquely Canadian regulatory success story. Now both are feeling the wrath of a federal government that seems more interested in creating opportunities for transnational corporations than in protecting Canadian farm and consumer interests.
A Canadian icon, the Wheat Board is the exclusive marketing agency for western farmers growing wheat and barley for human consumption. It seeks to obtain the best prices and transportation rates, and returns all the revenues it obtains (minus marketing costs) back to Canadian producers. Even though a solid majority of western grain producers support the current Wheat Board, the Harper government is implacably opposed to the internationally-renowned marketing agency.
The lesser-known Grain Commission also plays a central role in maintaining and enhancing Canada’s worldwide reputation for grain quality and consistency. As Canada’s grain system regulator, it administers the unique grading and inspection system that ensures the safety and quality of Canadian grain – and allows it to command consumer loyalty and high prices internationally.
The Harper government has already eliminated Canada’s highly effective visual grain identification system and gotten rid of Assistant Grain Commissioners, senior officials appointed primarily to protect farmers’ rights. Bill C-13 would continue the Conservatives’ efforts to fundamentally alter the role of the Grain Commission and undermine Canada’s grain system. The bill would turn over more of our regulatory system to private contractors and multinational grain companies, while downgrading the Grain Commission’s long-standing mandate to protect the interests of producers.
The recent spate of food safety concerns, together with the turmoil inflicted by the global financial crisis, graphically demonstrate the importance of intelligent public interest regulation, strong and effective regulatory institutions and appropriate constraints on the enormous power wielded by huge global corporations. Canada’s grain regulatory system has for decades supported producers, protected consumers, guaranteed quality and provided stability through the peaks and troughs of the commodity cycle. Discarding it, as proposed by the current government, would be folly. Instead, Parliament should safeguard and enhance a unique policy and regulatory success – Canada’s world-class grain system.
Scott Sinclair is senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He lives in rural Prince Edward Island. Jim Grieshaber-Otto has a Ph.D. in agricultural botany. He lives on a diversified 35-hectare family farm near Agassiz, B.C. Their study, Threatened Harvest: Protecting Canada’s world-class grain system, is available from: http://www.policyalternatives.ca