Warning bells sounded following federal budget

It was too much to expect that agriculture would be excluded from federal attempts to deliver a balanced budget in three years.

Even though Canada’s deficit of $24.9 billion seems small compared to other western developed nations, it must be dealt with for our long-term economic well-being.

In the federal budget announced last week, agriculture was tasked with spending $310 million less in two years than it does now as its part in an attempt to cut $5.2 billion annually in three years.

The finer details of how the cuts would be applied are not yet available, but we hope that key cornerstones of agriculture escape the more drastic measures.

The government maintained that the cuts would come mostly from what it termed back office administrative savings and that farmers and processors would continue to receive the same programs.

It’s tough to disagree with finding administrative efficiencies, but accomplishing it while also ensuring program delivery isn’t delayed is a fine balancing act.

Amalgamating certain services be-tween the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agriculture Canada has great potential to eliminate duplication and speed up services, but only in the final details will it become known whether the cuts affect food safety, for example.

Research is another key agriculture cornerstone that deserves special consideration. The budget said only that Ottawa would change tax credit incentives to more direct grants. It appears to be a case of money being shifted around, rather than a cut.

However, it does leave open the possibility of government being able to pick winners and losers based on a particular agenda.

Agriculture research today runs at funding levels below those of the 1990s. Trimming that more is counterproductive. Most economic analyses show the economy as a whole gains far more than the cost of the research and that its effects reach to many areas of the economy, from farm productivity to the food industry to consumers.

Another budget initiative to watch is a plan to eliminate 19,200 civil service jobs, which raises questions about future research. Agriculture Canada has pointed out in the past that many researchers are nearing retirement age and a plan to replace them is required.

Will that run contrary to the government plan to reduce its workforce through attrition? The country cannot afford to lose key research positions. Hiring bright young people to carry on the work of retiring researchers would be money well spent.

The Conservatives also revealed a plan to provide the Canadian Grain Commission with $44 million over two years to help shore up its operating deficits until a proper efficiency review can be carried out.

If efficiencies can be found that save farmers’ money, it makes far more sense than earlier discussions about passing the entire amount of the agency’s shortfall onto farmers in the way of higher service fees.

Worthy of praise are the government’s continued emphasis on international trade as are its initiatives to attract health-care workers and doctors to rural areas and its continued work to deliver broadband internet service to the countryside.

Agriculture could have fared worse in the budget, given the present climate for deficit reduction. Still, there are red flags marking what could develop into problems for agriculture down the road.

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