Ag policy talks must think big

Federal, provincial and territorial governments are working on renewing Canada’s agri-food policy with the current agreement (Growing Forward 2) expiring in 2018.

But what kind of new agreement will we have for 2018? Will it be a retrofit of our existing set of programs with changes in design and budget, or will it be a more robust consideration of Canadian agri-food sector evolution, and some of the challenges we will meet in the future?

The evidence is compelling that the program/budget retrofit model … will eventually break down under the weight of disruptive changes coming at us in the future, looking out to the early 2020s. This is true in a variety of respects.

The Census of Agriculture, with its initial results expected out in 2017, is likely to confirm the entrenched trend toward fewer farms overall, but larger ones…. Surely, the pressures on farms in the different size categories are different, and programming for stabilization and adjustment is seen as important.

Yet, business risk-management programming has been one-size-fits-all, and as the trend toward disparity of farm sizes increases, it becomes increasingly likely that nobody will be well served.

The trade agreements (the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement between Canada and European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement) negotiated by Canada during the Growing Forward 2 period were monumental and potentially transformative, but these are not yet ratified. With doubt now cast on both agreements, policy must contain a Plan B for growth in agri-food, apart from these deals.

Agriculture produces about 25 percent of methane in Canada and about 70 percent of nitrous oxide emissions, so the industry cannot blithely talk about beneficial management practices and environmental farm plans while provincial, territorial and federal governments are already working on greenhouse gas and climate change adaptation policies, along with carbon tax or cap-and trade-initiatives.

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As a user of fossil fuels and petro-chemicals, agri-food cost structures could be significantly impacted by these policy initiatives. Yet with its abundance of land and natural resources, agriculture could also be a critical solutions provider. But what can reasonably be expected from agri-food, both in terms of a contributor and a means of mitigating climate change? As never before, other segments of the economy will look to agri-food, potentially as a climate bad actor to be reigned in, or, with the help of innovative policy, a leading source of mitigation to be supported.

Today, … the agri-food stakeholder group has broadened to include groups concerned about agricultural production technology, processing methods, labelling, genetics, health, local food systems, farm families, and more. The influence of these groups is growing, especially in the restrictive marketing of food products with traits seen as “sustainable,” and agriculture comes from somewhat of an isolated position in public policy to engage these concerns. Communications strategies to convince the public that Canadian farm and food products are safe and healthy, and that farmers are great people, tend not to convince those already skeptical of the message.

These issues are exceptionally broad and deep, but real. The current, scheduled dialogue on agri-food programs and spending offers a unique opportunity to go further to tackle them, and many of these issues have been identified in the current process.

However, extensive research and broader public dialogue will be required to anticipate issues and engage them in innovative policy. The prospect of fixing the current program set to work in this environment is just too limiting. The risk is that the current dialogue and ultimate agreement will be both too small in ambition and too safe in scope. Governments and the industry should demand a new federal-provincial-territorial policy agreement that is more about fulsome policy direction and shaping ourselves for what is to come, building on a five-year agreement on programs and spending, with a process to get us there.

Al Mussell is research lead at Agri-Food Economic Systems in Guelph, Ont.

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