Discussion: Is Agriculture a Special Case?

by Eric Marr, 26/11/12

I expect few would doubt that the agriculture sector is treated as a special case by governments. There are examples of exemptions from environmental regulations, labour laws, and even market forces. However this raises the question, should agriculture be treated as a special case?

I have been hearing it argued more and more recently that agriculture should be treated like any other industry and subject to the same restrictions; especially in light of high commodity prices and tightening government budgets. This includes environmental regulations, such as those pertaining to run-off polluting water bodies, and especially the reduction of economic protections such as subsidies or trade protection. Indeed, it has been argued that agriculture is not innovative and subject to ‘moral hazard’ because it is provided a safety net by government programs. We also often hear agriculture raised in trade negotiations as an obstacle due to protections provided by governments, such as supply management (quota) which is particularly debated here in Canada. Further still, we often hear agriculture (sometimes unfairly) criticized for their environmental impacts.

Nevertheless, this raises a lot of questions about what our agri-food system would look like were it treated like any other industry. Could small farms survive or would we see further consolidation? And secondly, does that matter? At least here in Canada we don’t (really) protect other small businesses from being pushed out by large corporations, why should we protect farmers? If another small business cannot make enough money to survive, the government doesn’t intervene. Why should there be price protections for farm products when there is certainly price fluctuation and risk in other businesses? Should we impose environmental regulations and force agricultural operations, like any other polluter, to innovate or shut down? Or is food so dear to us that agriculture is not just a normal industry but is rather one that provides us with a public good? If this is the case, what about non-food producing agriculture, should it have the same protections?

I certainly don’t have any of these answers but I would be interested to hear the perspective of ICRPS Alumni.