June 2006: It Took Them 400 Years to Find Us Again

Agribusiness firms wallow in profits, farmers in losses
June 1, 2006

About six years ago, I met with a group of farmers in Gravelbourg, a mainly French community in southwest Saskatchewan. The small talk before the formal gathering turned to the sorry state of the farm economy at the time. An older farmer shook his head in disgust. “My ancestors,” he recalled, “came from France in the 1600s to get away from the rich and powerful people who were exploiting them. Now, after all those years, look what we’ve come to!”

There was a moment’s silence. Then one of the other farmers said jokingly, “Well, it only too them 400 years to find you again.”

Everyone laughed, but it was an uneasy laugh. That simple but profound remark has stayed with me. And as the farm economy has gone from bad to worse since then, I’ve thought about it a lot. Viewing some statistics recently put together by the National Farmers Union reminded me again.

The figures were the profits reaped by businesses involved with agriculture in 2004. It was striking to see how great a year 2004 was for agribusiness. A partial list of the companies that made record profits that year includes Imperial Oil, Saskferco, Pfizer, Novartis, Deere and Company, the Bank of Nova Scotia, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Anheuser-Busch, Canadian National Railway, Kraft Foods, ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg Co., Maple Leaf Foods, J.M. Smucker Co. (Robin Hood), Prairie Malting, Bunge Ltd., Molson/Coors Brewing, Sun-Rype Products, Saputo Inc., Loblaws, and McDonald’s.

Profits for these companies ranged from $12 billion for Kraft Foods and $14 billion for Pfizer to a mere $1.3 billion for CN. Return on equity ran from 83% for Anheuser-Busch to only 18% for ConAgra.

Canadian farmers had a different year in 2004. Collectively, they lost $7.7 billion, and saw their return on equity at minus-5.09%.

It would appear that they have indeed found us again.

All of which led me to think about the beginnings of agriculture. Farming began in what is now Iraq—the Fertile Crescent—about 10,000 years ago. At that time, people who had previously been hunters and gatherers settled down in villages and began to cultivate the soil and grow crops.

Ten thousand years might seem like a long time. But if you put it in terms of generations—a generation being about 30 years—that represents about 300 generations of farmers. Between my father, my grandfather, and myself, we represent three generations. So, if you look back in time in a straight line, you could say that I’ve known 1% of all the generations that have ever farmed. That’s an amazing number.

And what did farmers do in those 300 generations? Well, they developed modern crops. By careful selection, they turned tiny seeds of grasses and small wild fruits into grains and fruits and vegetables, many of which we still grow and eat today. They developed hundreds of breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals suited to a wide range of climates around the globe. And they did all this before the discovery of the science of genetics, which is just a bit over 100 years old.

You can see that farmers in those 300 generations were very busy. Imagine the progress that had to be made in each generation! That knowledge, both explicit and implicit, was passed from parent to child 300 times. The explicit knowledge concerned how to choose the best seeds for next year, how to tend animals, when to harvest crops, how to store them—a million pieces of knowledge passed down by word and example. And the implicit knowledge was also shared. It contained the genetic storehouse built up generation by generation, carrying the germ-plasm of superior plants and the genes of superior animals.

For 300 generations, 10,000 years, farmers kept this knowledge and passed it on. And now, in our generation, the chain is being broken. Farmers are leaving the land in droves. Why? Because we gave up our control over that knowledge. As modern science evolved, we gave it to the universities. But they were publicly owned, and, as they improved on that knowledge, they gave it back to us—freely.

Then, about 20 years ago, there was a dramatic shift. Governments decided that knowledge should no longer be free. They brought in plant breeders’ rights and patents on living things. Now, by adding one tiny jot to the information that came from 300 generations of farmers, private companies can own all this accumulated knowledge. And once they owned it, they began to sell it back to us—but to use, not to own. Now farmers are prohibited from saving their own seeds and sharing them with their neighbours, as they had done for millennia.

But we did this for a reason, right? We did it because science and the privatization of knowledge were going to give us better crops, make us better off, allow us to feed the expanding global population.

Oddly, however, 400 million people still die of hunger every year, and a billion others have inadequate diets. Farmers all over the world are in trouble, fleeing to overcrowded cities and abandoning the way of life of 300 generations. Canadian farmers suffer new record losses while agribusiness thrives off our work. As the NFU has wryly noted, “Farmers are now the hamsters in the wheel that runs the agribusiness empire. The solution to the farm crisis, we’re told, is for the hamsters to run faster.”

So we look for solutions: ethanol, bio-diesel, hog barns, higher-yielding crops, the World Trade Organization.

All these things may hold promise. But, until we realize that they’ve found us, such technical or structural improvements will only add to their wealth, no matter how fast we run on our hamster wheels.

(Paul Beingessner is a consultant, writer, and third-generation prairie farmer. He raises sheep, cattle, and a little bit of hell from Truax, Saskatchewan.)