More than six years into his term as Canada’s 32nd agriculture minister and soon to be among the longest serving, Gerry Ritz sounds content that he has changed the landscape.
“I started in this game with two mottos: farmers first and marketplace, not the mailbox,” he said in an expansive year-end interview about issues past and future.
“We’ve spent the last six and a half years building to that end, working in lockstep with our provincial partners and territories because they are 40 percent of this, as well industry,” said Ritz.
“There’s never been as much consultation with industry, like-minded people, forward thinking producers, so it’s been a good six years.”
Rarely in recent federal-provincial history have provinces and most of the agriculture and food lobby been so accepting of the federal government agenda, even though it includes a sharp reduction in government’s historic role in the industry.
To his political and industry critics, Ritz has been a divisive minister who destroyed institutions such as the CWB monopoly, reduced farm support programs, reduced long-term research funding and consults only with farmers who agree with his agenda — “like-minded people.”
He has been transformative, they agree, but not for the benefit of most farmers.
He has, they say, reduced farmer power in the system and opened the door to more grain and seed company control.
Ritz sees it differently.
He said he is changing an agriculture system that was mired in regulation and restriction into a system open to the world market, helping the Canadian sector become “more mature and more global.”
Cuts to business risk management programs that took effect April 1 will make farmers more responsible for protecting themselves against market fluctuations and less dependent on government.
He reduced the Canadian Grain Commission’s mandatory services, increased fees for optional services and put the commission on a track to be financially self-sufficient with higher costs for farmers.
The 2013 free trade deal-in-principle with the European Union will be a “monumental” opportunity for Canadian livestock and grain sectors, said Ritz.
However, they will have to gear up to heed market signals and respond.
In 2014, Ritz expects Parliament to quickly push through Bill C -18, legislation that will strengthen plant breeders’ rights and expand the cash advance program to a five-year model.
“On cash advances, we’re reducing the regulatory burden and making everything we can as farmer-friendly as we can.”
He also plans additional legislation to reform the Canadian Grain Commission, likely including a change in the governance model of the century-old commission.
But in the near-term, the agriculture minister’s top priority is Bill C-18, an omnibus agricultural bill that has as its centrepiece a strengthening of the patent rights for plant breeders to increase their ability to earn money for their crop varieties.
Although the bill ensures the right of farmers to save and replant their own seed, the assumption of the new rules will be that there will be a greater farmer cost at some stage in the system so that seed companies can recoup their investment.
Ritz said updating Canadian plant breeder rules from their current 1978 basis to fall in line with a 1991 international seed agreement is key to Canada’s ability to compete and expand.
He ties the legislation to the last Bill C-18 he sponsored in the previous parliamentary session, which ended the CWB single desk.
“Bill C-18 is almost as important as the last Bill C-18 we passed,” said Ritz.
He said strengthening the rights of plant breeding companies to earn money for their work is “putting a marker down so we can start to draw some international investment here.”
Critics insist it is an attempt to lure private investment to replace the public research funding he is cutting, but Ritz said it is simply an attempt to rev up Canada’s agricultural research effort.
“As I travel the world, I’ve heard groups from all over saying they want to come to Canada, they want to make significant investments here to help us develop new varieties now with the end of the single desk so those new varieties can be out there for millers and bakers,” Ritz said.
“That really is where the world has gone so we’re welcoming of that.”