Contentious agricultural issues loom in coming year – Opinion

THE NEW year has the potential to be one of the most momentous for farm policy and programs in some time.

The minority Conservative government, assuming it remains in office, faces a blizzard of contentious agricultural issues to manage.

How well they are managed will be a test for prime minister Stephen Harper, agriculture minister Gerry Ritz, trade minister David Emerson, transport minister Lawrence Cannon and perhaps even industry minister Jim Prentice.

What follows is merely a partial list of farmer-important issues that confront the government in 2008.

On April 1, new business risk management programs take effect and they almost certainly will be judged inadequate to deal with crises foreseen, such as livestock losses, and those not yet obvious.

Will Ritz continue to insist that ad hoc help beyond existing programs is not acceptable? As losses mount, so will industry pressure.

Meanwhile, Ritz and his provincial counterparts will be under the gun to negotiate the details of non-business risk management programming this year, ranging from environmental spending to research and renewal.

The Canadian Wheat Board file will continue to be contentious and delicate for the government. The court’s 2007 rejection of Conservative attempts to end the CWB barley monopoly by regulation will be appealed in the winter and if the government loses, Ritz will have to do something to signal to the party faithful that ending the monopoly is still a priority.

In Geneva, World Trade Organization talks continue into the new year and a failure to find a deal will frustrate the Conservatives’ natural allies in the agricultural export community.

If a deal emerges, it will force the Conservatives to figure out how to cushion the blow for supply managed sectors that will see their protections weakened as one of the costs of a deal.

On the transportation front, shipper protection amendments to the Canada Transportation Act will be on the agenda when Parliament resumes Jan. 28.

With strong Conservative promises that the shipper rights bill will become law, the pressure will be on transport minister Cannon to make sure Bill C-8 gets the priority and time it needs to make it through the system.

The alternative will be a feeling from agricultural shippers that the Conservatives reneged on their promise to rebalance the power relationship between shippers and railways.

The sleeper issue may be the government’s determination to implement in early 2008 new rules on the composition of cheese that will force cheese makers to use more Canadian raw milk and less cheaper dairy protein substitutes.

An unprecedented coalition of processor, business, food manufacturer, trader and health interests has formed to oppose the proposal and insist that it is a wrong-headed attempt to help dairy farmers at the expense of Canadians and the Canadian economy.

Prentice will have to try to appease that powerful lobby if Ritz insists on moving ahead on cheese compositional standards.

It is a long and contentious list of issues for 2008. If the Conservatives emerge from the year with a majority, fasten your seat belts for an avalanche of policy change.

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