My daughter made up this goofy game called Opposite Day. I hate eating eggs for breakfast, she'd say while gobbling up the eggs I'd just cooked, leaving me totally perplexed until she burst out laughing: It's Opposite Day!
Thanks to that experience, I understand what Canadian agriculture officials are up to.
Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell was playing Opposite Day on March 29 when he gave away a billion dollars to Canadian beef, grain and oilseed farmers as a result of low prices and a U.S. border closed to beef.
This is "the first step in an aggressive all-out effort to restructure the national agriculture and agri-food industry and bring profitability back to one of Canada's most important sectors," Mitchell told the media, who never figured out that he was playing Opposite Day.
It was beef, grain and oilseed farmers who followed the feds' advice in the first place to gear themselves up for North American beef sales and stop worrying that Canada had lost its slaughtering plants and become totally dependent on the U.S.
Among the farmers who didn't get, and to a certain extent didn't need, a cent were those who didn't follow that advice and held on for dear life to the pooh-poohed, pre-free-trade, no-export, Canada-only "supply-managed" dairy, chicken and egg system. These arrangements have kept farmers' heads above water because supply is matched to demand, and there's no overproduction that causes prices to collapse and requires bailouts.
Not that the $1 billion was a bailout, a word that never got uttered.
For that matter, "welfare" or "dole" were never mentioned, for the obvious reason that beef and grain farmers don't live in Toronto, where those words apply when it comes time for much stingier government grants.
Nor was "permanent subsidy" ever mentioned on Opposite Day, even though the government announcement made it clear that the new billion dollars "will supplement current federal, provincial and territorial agriculture programs that last year paid out a record $4.9 billion to farmers."
The feds' billion dollars are on top of $640 million the provinces are supposed to cough up. (Ontario got into the spirit of Opposite Day and gave $50 million to tobacco growers as part of the province's anti-smoking strategy, the ag minister said.)
Some people get uptight about the DaVinci code that apparently determines what goes on in the Vatican, but no one worries about the Opposite Day code that's behind government agriculture spending.
That code accounts for the fact that no government money ever goes to food for hungry people. (One billion dollars would neatly allow farmers to get a fair price for fresh food delivered to people who now rely on food banks, for instance, solving both a farm problem and an inequity problem.)
Nor does the code support food that's considered essential: when is there ever money for season-extension techniques for local fruit and veggies?
As under-reported as our government's billion-dollar giveaway to obsolete forms of agriculture was the launch of Britain's Environmental Stewardship program three weeks earlier, on March 3.
Since they don't celebrate Opposite Day over there, British government officials came right out and said the program is based on "market failure." Farmers never get reimbursed in the marketplace for "public goods" - things like pretty landscapes, clean air and water, or habitat for endangered species - and these benefits to all of us will not be possible without government subsidies, according to the England Rural Development Programme's refreshingly honest statement.
As well, the British program seems to be based on a recognition of the dirty secret that no one anywhere can admit outright: that the world is groaning under the weight of food overproduction, and the challenge is to find ways to cut back, not increase it.
The great majority of the world's hungry are farmers and farm workers unable to sell into local markets because of First World dumping. Supporting First World farmers with payments that enhance their social and environmental contributions, not their food production, improves conditions in the North while supporting self-reliance in the South.
So in the UK, government will pay farmers to voluntarily participate in one of three programs. At the entry level, farmers choose among 50 options, such as maintaining the ancient hedgerows and stone fences loved by free-spending tourists almost as much as by hundreds of species of plants, voles, frogs, newts and birds. The farmers receive £30 for every hectare that's left out of production.
In the advanced programs, farmers choose among options that bring in £60 for each hectare that's farmed organically.
In the middle, farmers get grants if they leave forested land uncut or create work for the unemployed in food processing .
"Conservation is my main crop," says Jon Rowe, a farmer who works with the National Trust to preserve wildlife on his lands.
We might get there someday if we ever get agriculture officials who stop doing everything backward, and start spending money on things we'd like to see rather than on disaster relief.