Government, Not Palm Oil, Is the Problem With Canadian Butter

March 1, 2021 Updated: March 1, 2021


Remember “I can’t believe it’s not butter”? Well, here in Canada we can’t believe it is butter while staring at a waxy yellow product that doesn’t soften at room temperature. Thanks to the government.

Various news stories blamed dairy farmers for feeding cows palm oil. Which you might agree they should not do because (a) it doesn’t seem very natural and (b) you might be reluctant to consume palm oil directly. You probably don’t keep anything with that label in your kitchen, though actually there’s a lot of it in various processed foods.

Also (c) it makes what is sold as butter in Canada even less like the real thing. But as usual when people do something weird, the question you should ask is “Who paid them to do it?”

Not as a conspiracy theory. Because incentives matter. But as speaking economese tends to have roughly the same effect on people as serving them waxy yellow products, after adding sedatives, I think it’s worth reformulating.

Like the butter. I realize there’s lively debate about whether palm and other so-called “tropical” oils are bad. They contain a lot of saturated fats that governments once hated. Which is no guarantee that they are unhealthy; after George McGovern kicked off the 1970s fat panic and convinced us to eat carbs without end, we not only turned to muffins but into them.

Still, it’s not bucolic to imagine cows grazing on palm trees or slurping grease out of tubs instead of eating good, sweet grass. And if you agree, you should have a choice. But in Canada you don’t pay the piper so you don’t call the tune.

Hang on, you may say. I pay plenty for dairy. But as the National Post quoted RealAgriculture, producers add it to feed “to help balance a ration (the amount of feed an animal receives), to help make up for shortfalls in the nutritional quality of hay or forage, or to achieve the desired butterfat needed to meet a farm’s monthly quota in Canada’s supply managed system.”

Monthly quota? Oh yes. In Canada we don’t sell milk to people. We sell it to governments. And while everybody knows supply management is a scheme to restrict production to raise prices to favour a lobby group at the expense of consumers, especially the poor, our regrettable tendency to be as docile as a herd of collective-farm cows in the face of mediocrity prevents us from making a fuss.

Or looking at New Zealand, where the government hit the wall financially in the 1980s and instead of stunning them it cleared their heads, leading to massive deregulation. In one year, subsidies went from 40 percent of farm income to zero, and when the dairy lobby’s howls that they would perish if not swaddled in red tape then fed with a state eyedropper were disregarded, they used ingenuity and effort to become the world’s leading butter exporter.

We could do likewise. Canadian farmers are neither fools nor schlubs. But just as we believe our medical system is the world’s best, although many countries have universal care at much lower cost and without those deadly waiting lists we do complain about, we object when butter literally turns into a candle. But instead of saying hey, why isn’t it a rich yellow colour with, what’s that thing, flavour, we go oh yeah, the government is protecting us from… from… from what? Overpriced bad butter?

Now you may say you like yours hard. You may say palm oil is the best. And if so, you should be able to buy such butter. Just as you should be able to buy pompous shampoo with ingredients I suspect primarily soften your wallet. Choice is fulfilling in the short run, and in the long run drives producers to focus on improving things.

Unlike quotas. The Soviet Union showed with ghastly clarity that when producers are given numerical targets, they focus on quantity over quality if paid to do so, or the reverse, and ironically you get neither because the nail factory either produces a host of feeble pins or one big spike.

Only if customers pay for nails they want do producers focus on the right size, hardness, spiralling, head shape, and price. And go home satisfied because they spent their day improving other people’s lives, I might add.

As I might add that all the snorting about better targets in health care is thus worse than useless. If you pay doctors to see lots of people briefly, or spend lots of time with a few patients, they will. Only if customers pay them for services rendered will things get better, including for doctors. Mais revenons à nos vaches.

Canadian butter isn’t really lousy due to adding palm oil. It’s lousy due to adding government, a notoriously hard and unsavoury substance

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.