Op-Ed: Liberals’ expanding priorities: a challenge for Agriculture

The House of Commons Agriculture Committee has been hearing from Canadian agriculture on the next Agricultural Policy Framework (APF) agreement. Primary producers, food processors, transportation, exporters, specialty sectors—each has a set of priorities for taxpayers’ money assigned to agriculture. The massive and healthy diversity that makes up Canadian agriculture creates a multiplicity of claims and interests.

It takes money to provide programming. Growing Forward 2 (GF2) is coming to an end. There is no indication of what commitment this government will make to new programming as it is implemented. The Liberals have told the provinces and Canadian agriculture that this round of APF will have twice as many priorities as GF2. And, it is clear that these new areas (climate change, public trust and agri-food processing) will require substantial taxpayer resources if they are to be treated seriously by the next APF.

At the same time, the priorities of the past are still vital to our agricultural future. Markets and trade have always been critical components of all agricultural negotiations in Canada. The completion of over 30 free trade deals in the last decade and the discussions over CETA and TPP remind us that trade has risen in priority both for those who favour expanded trade and those who do not.

The success of all industry, including agriculture, requires continuous improvement and the application of new technology. Nowhere is that more evident today than in agriculture. The ongoing transformation to advanced electronics and data collection is nothing short of revolutionary. It is changing every area of agriculture—from production to sales, from fertilizer application rates to traceability, from soil testing to precision guided farming, from genetic mapping to new GMO crops. The importance of science, research and innovation cannot be overstated. The need for accurate science has never been greater and is needed to counteract the claims and hyperbole that are directly influencing uninformed consumers as they make their food decisions.

The king of farm programming has always been the business risk management package. For decades, producers have insisted that because they provide the basis for national food security, the taxpayer had a responsibility to backstop the risk that farmers faced. The focus on the family farm has shifted away from the small mixed farms of the past and toward a stronger commercial business model. The emphasis in GF2 shifted to some extent from concentrating primarily on production/margin based programming to tools that share both the cost and the risk such as AgriInsurance and to longer term joint farmer/taxpayer ‘saving’ programs such as AgriInvest.

These were the priorities of GF2 and adding new components will require either a very different approach or more money.

All of this leads to the question—how will the new priorities of the next APF impact the direct support to individual producers who are the foundation of the entire system? The Liberals’ fascination with carbon taxes will not be positive for agriculture unless the Canadian taxpayer is going to be stuck with the bill. Any effective carbon tax will deliver a massive tax burden to agriculture. The Liberals’ notion of environmental cooperation has not changed from the disastrous path of the past. Local communities are not a part of decision-making and end up being victims of it. Projects that could have been pilots in establishing a new relationship between environmental bureaucracies and local communities have been set aside in favor of the traditional model that hands large amounts of money to outside organizations to come in and dominate local communities. This approach will work no better than it did in the past.

Agri-food processing has also been added as a new pillar. While much needs to be done to develop processing and link it to trade opportunities, it is unclear how this government will approach a sector dominated by large and integrated corporations. The amount of money needed to make an impact in this sector could dwarf the other priority areas and will have to be carefully monitored.

Public trust is a necessary focus of any modern agriculture policy. Consumers, and especially urbanites, are far removed from food production and a clear understanding of food quality. There is a desperate need to educate the public about food and agricultural production. Information in this day and age takes a distant second to opinion, but Canadian agriculture needs to tell its story—a narrative about producing the best and safest food in the world.

The future looks great for agriculture. It is not clear that the present Liberal government has the capability to address the issues necessary to enable Canadian agriculture to reach its potential. As the new APF is developed we will see whether agriculture will be given the importance it deserves.