Our Hungry World at Christmas: Every Canadian Farmer’s Challenge

As I get older, time seems to go by quicker.  I know, I heard that all my life from my late father and grandfather.  Time can be a funny thing.  When it is raining in the fall it seems to take forever for it to dry up for good harvest conditions.  However, now on Christmas Eve, it seems like 2015 was a blur.  We got here one minute at a time, so as Christmas rolls around sometimes it’s good just to look back and reflect.

I write an awful lot about agricultural markets.  It never used to be that way but things have developed over time.  With my background as an agricultural economist I really enjoy speaking about the grain markets and the macro-intricacies of our economy and how it all ties together.  Of course we are in the agricultural commodity business and our end users are consumers around the world.  Keeping everybody fed and feeding the hungry seems to be one of the most basic requirements of mankind.  It just so happens as farmers, were well placed.

In Canada this December we are witnessing a noble part of the Canadian character.  As I write this, 5812 Syrian refugees have either arrived in Canada or they’ve been approved to arrive but not traveled yet.  So far, we have 2176 Syrian refugees in Canada who arrived on six different flights and are preparing to live in 72 communities across Canada.  It is a high profile promise from our new Liberal government, but no matter who the politician would have been, it would have happened.  It just so happens that Prime Minister Trudeau has made it more of a high profile campaign commitment.  Canadians showing compassion is part of our national character, at least this time.

I say at least this time because as Canadians we have had our issues.  We might be opening the welcome mat for Syrian refugees, but there are many more refugees in the world than Syrians escaping their Civil War.  The refugees escaping tyranny in Central Africa and Myanmar bleed too.  However, for whatever reason we don’t have a fast track for those people.  We certainly have other issues with are own people whether the homeless or our aboriginal people.  Needless to say, some people might argue with that.  Despite that, I think Canada tries pretty hard.  Nothing will ever be perfect.

Of course that can be said for the agricultural business too.  At the present time we have huge surpluses of agricultural commodities almost everywhere on earth, but still people are hungry.  Is always a question of distribution, efficiency and of course economics.  I don’t know if we will ever get that right, but I do know that it is entirely likely the agricultural systems that we as farmers employ will likely only become more efficient.  So in the future there is likely to be more and more supplies of our agricultural commodities.  The demand side might take some work.

It is one thing to talk about hunger in the context of supply and demand and it’s another thing to witness it at the micro level.  For instance over the last 30 years of writing this column I have visited Bangladesh five times.  It is now a country of 160 million people, but when I first visited there 22 years ago there were 90 million in a landmass about the size of Oklahoma.  Incomes have risen over that time significantly and poverty has been reduced greatly.  That is the good news; the bad news is there are still empty stomachs.

Witnessing that was always life changing for me.  I remember in 1993 at the train stop in Comilla, Bangladesh, seeing kids outside my train car fighting over food from the garbage thrown out from the train.  I remember clearly one little emasculated boy who was knocked over and he hit his head on the rail.  He was crying as the train moved away.  He was obviously hungry, had little to eat and here I was on a train leaving him behind.  Here I am today still thinking about him after all this time.  You would think at a certain point in our agricultural world we would get it right.  We would have a system where everybody had enough to eat.  In 2015, it’s much better, but there still is a long ways to go.

So as farmers we must produce as much food as we can.  We are very good at that.  I am sure that many of the Syrian refugees who arrive here in 2016 will marvel about what they learn about Canadian agriculture.  Of course, I’m sure living in a safe place with an abundance safe food supply is enough for now.  The challenge will remain at Christmas time to be thankful for what we have and continue to produce food for a world, which is hungry for it.  That little boy on the railroad track in Comilla, Bangladesh would probably be in his 30s by now.  Of course, I don’t know if he ever made it.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.