Just in time for late may when crops can be planted without danger of frost, Statistics Canada released three agricultural reports, all frost warnings of a food security system in peril.
Don't expect any response from health officials. This is typical in a country that has no food policy and almost no medical or agricultural power brokers who respect food's centrality as a determinant of health.
But the stats tell us that the days of food as usual are numbered.
One report, The Financial Picture Of Farms In Canada, issued May 16, confirms the deep dysfunction of a $42-billion-a-year farm economy in which 44.2 per cent of farmers lost money last year a crisis level of failure in any industry, let alone one that produces goods essential to survival.
Almost 10 per cent of farms went out of business between 2001 and 2006. Less than half the remaining 230,000 farms put enough food on the table to keep the farmer working full-time on the land; many subsidize their farms by working 40 hours a week or more in other jobs.
The trend to family farm extinction comes through loud and clear in a second report, Snapshot Of Canadian Agriculture. The average farmer is 52 years old, five years older than the average age in 1991.
Anyone young enough to try something else is getting out while the getting's good. Fewer than 30,000 farmers are under 35, a drop of 25 per cent since five years ago. Since that's the group most likely to have children, it's clear the days of the family farm are numbered.
Fewer and older farmers are working more land; the average farm grew from 273 to 295 hectares since 2001. These demographics have no future. Old farmers with bigger farms to run aren't looking for new crops that require a lot of bending and duck-walking, farm-transforming methods such as organic, or new and under-supplied market niches serving recent immigrants.
Farmers who have just finished 40-hour weeks at their day job aren't looking for a chance to pick weeds and shoo-fly pests rather than apply herbicides and pesticides. And fewer farmers with fewer kids means the hollowing out of small-town infrastructure.
Another trend that spells food-supply trouble has to do with concentration. Fewer than 6,000 farms now account for 40 per cent of farm gate sales, a disturbingly small number of places if 30 million people start wondering where their next local meal might come from.
This is not a system designed with any regard for resilience, surge capacity, robust response to crises or due diligence by politicians and health officials.
Alert health officials might also be alarmed by another trend. There's little relation between what Canadian farmers grow and what Canadian health guidelines say people should eat. The government puts $4.8 billion a year into programs that fund farmers, but there's no sign that one of those dollars is attached to any directive about enviro or dietary health goals. About half of Canada's farms raise livestock of various kinds, beef cattle way out ahead, and about 40 per cent raise field crops (wheat, hay, canola, feed corn, etc), much of which goes to feed livestock or, more recently, to fuel cars.
Only 5.5 per cent of farms produce fruit and veg. Sweet corn, tasty but devoid of many nutrients, takes up a quarter of the land devoted to fruit and veg, and potatoes, most destined for heart-dumb French fries and potato chips, take up much of the rest. The best fruit lands are devoted to grapes for wine, said to be good for the heart but bad for cancer, and displace apples and tender fruit, good for both.
You'd never know, in short, that Canada's Food Guide was drawn up by the same government and paid for by the same taxpayers who fund and support contrary products in agriculture. I think "two solitudes" was the phrase a novelist once used to describe this Canadian trait.
Another trend is identified by the third StatsCan report, Farming In Canada's CMAs [census metropolitan areas]. Canada has the good fortune to have 35,000 farms within 33 urban districts, such as the greater Toronto area. With luck, these could feed urbanites during an emergency (think avian flu or SARS, for example) that kept California, Florida and Chicago food trucks from crossing the border.
It might even be wise to partially fund diverse farms near cities on an insurance principle. Why don't we pay food security insurance just as we insure against theft, fire and flood damage to property? Our money could go to keep farmers on near-urban lands, with an insurance fee supporting their efforts to grow diverse crops.
Instead, what grows near cities is what covers the high price of near-city land. Thus, we have a big increase in near-urban greenhouses, a little less than half of which produce flowers, not veggies.
StatsCan notes that landscaping nurseries on 69,000 acres export irreplaceable topsoil and sod to city lawns. Horse farms account for most near-urban livestock, especially near Toronto and Calgary. Like most pets, horses are raised for recreation rather than meat.
The value-added of alcohol means climatically blessed areas near St. Catharines and Kelowna are mostly growing wine, not tender fruit. There are almost no mixed farms and few dairy, poultry or egg farms near cities. Unless there's a big change in thinking, we're going to be missing meals in a crisis.
Canada's 3,555 certified organic farms, 60 per cent new since 2001, seem like good news. But the greatest portion of organic land is devoted to prairie grains destined for export to Europe. Sure, organic is the growth segment in food retail, but most of this, especially fruit and veg and processed goods, comes from California, so the premium prices go south.
To buck this trend, the recent Ontario budget gave $200,000 to help all Ontario organic farmers fight the California competition in their home market. To put that in perspective, $200,000 is half the estimated water irrigation subsidy for each and every large exporting farm in California, according to estimates by the Environmental Working Group.
For the people in charge of ag policy, some things never add up.