When I attended a meeting of dairy farmers recently I was impressed with the kind of strategic thinking that is part of the agricultural industry these days.
It reminded me, yet again, that farming is not what it used to be when I was a boy growing up in the drylands of southern Alberta.
The keynote speaker at this event, Ted Bilyea, is an expert on global trends, emerging markets, and the impact they will have, or could have, on Canadian agriculture.
He was one of several speakers who underlined the importance of explosive economic growth in places like China and India.
The enhanced economic activity in these huge emerging economies is both a threat to Canadian farmers, in terms of increased competition in the domestic market, and an opportunity in terms of the accelerated demand that comes with rapid urbanization, wealth, and the desire for better quality food.
However, the growth in demand is being tempered by global concerns about the quality of food, diseases that can be transmitted across boundaries, and the impact of global warming on the agricultural sector.
It's also clear that there are mounting concerns about the quality of the food arriving on supermarket shelves in our own country.
Increasingly, people do not want to eat food that is laced with residues. And there is a growing concern about the future of the planet and the harm that may result from bad agricultural practices.
According to Bilyea, it is these concerns that have caused European farmers and the green movement to forge a common front to stem the growth of the Brazilian beef industry which, through deforestation and the use of pesticides, contributes directly to the ruination of the Amazon forest.
There are, then, two key issues that are certain to have an impact on the future of agriculture in this country and throughout the world:
(1) The concern for human health and the demand for clean organic produce.
(2) The need for sustainable agricultural practices in a rapidly evolving, urbanized global market.
Last year $8.4 billion was spent on agricultural subsidies in Canada. Many economists believe that the future of Canadian agriculture can be better served by responding to emerging consumer demands rather than relying on such massive producer subsidies.
Some of this money -- which sustains what many farmers see as a "cheap food policy" -- could be better used to help farmers adapt to develop sustainable practices and to take advantage of promising markets around the world.
The salvation of the Canadian agricultural sector is probably not something that can be achieved by international bureaucrats, government regulators or farmers acting on their own.
It will require the active involvement of informed and concerned citizens. We who are the consumers of food and stewards of the planet have to confront the implications of our "cheap food policy." We will have to recognize that to demand more from our farmers means we will have to pay more for our food.
When it comes to sustainable agriculture and healthy farming practices, continental Europe seems to be leading the way.
In France, for example, about one-third of broiler chickens (those raised for meat) are free range -- a huge percentage in comparison to the prevailing industrial methods in North America and Great Britain. But in France it remains true that consumers are prepared to pay more than we are for high-quality, ethically raised food.
And two of Britain's leading chefs -- Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall -- are leading a campaign to change eating and buying habits in that country.
In a series on British television they are exhorting their countrymen to turn their backs on a policy where price means everything. They are using their celebrity status to convince members of the public that they should eat more healthily, be more concerned about the way food animals are raised, and be prepared to pay more for high-quality food.
We should be undertaking similar initiatives in Canada.
Blair Williams, who once served as chief of staff to the federal minister of agriculture, lives in the midst of the dairy farmers.
© The Vancouver Sun 2008