Market access moot without investment in crop research, infrastructure

It’s been message hammered home to Canada’s agricultural community for months: the federal Conservatives are committed to opening new markets and improving trade access.

The expansion of Canada’s global reach for agricultural products is such a priority it generated an extra $30 million for the multi-billion sector: $12 million for marketing and $18 million for the Market Access Secretariat.

The new money was one of a limited number of promises for Canadian farmers put forward in the recent federal budget, but like most of the funding allotted in the 2015 fiscal plan, the dollars don’t kick in until 2016.

The federal government also pledged an immediate increase in the lifetime capital gains cap bumping it to $1 million. Farmers and farm groups, though, were quick to mention the government failed to address ongoing Canada Revenue Agency technical issues around farm transfers that are causing problems on the ground.

Canada’s agriculture industry is hardly anti-trade. Still, if there was one underlying message quietly rumbling beneath the budget reaction from the country’s agriculture industry, at least in conversation, it was that at some point ongoing domestic issues need to be addressed, too.

Issues like a shortage of labour, infrastructure and research funding, the industry says, are essential if Canada’s agriculture sector is going to be able to capitalize on the new international market access.

When asked about the budget, farmers said they need new crop varieties and resources to deal with changing growing conditions caused by climate change: varying moisture levels, extended droughts and different soil conditions.

The 2015 Economic Action Plan doesn’t even mention the word climate change, a point highlighted repeatedly by opposition MPs since the April 21 budget was released.

Also missing from the federal budget was an answer to the mounting infrastructure problem facing rural communities and major trading corridors.

To be fair, most were anticipating the federal government would wait to make investments, if any, in rail infrastructure until the CTA review wraps up later this year.

However, there was no money set aside for the Asia Pacific Gateway, despite repeated asks for $1 billion to $1.5 billion for the corridor from the premiers of British Columbia, Sask-atchewan and Alberta, all of whom share Conservative leanings.

The Asia Pacific Gateway is the main thoroughfare in this country for trade to the West Coast, which is the main departure zone for goods heading to Asia, one of the world’s fast growing international markets.

Agriculture minster Gerry Ritz has repeatedly said his sights are set on tapping into the Asian markets, where the growth is so big if every individual from China ate a burger and drank a beer once a month, Canada wouldn’t be able to meet the demand.

Getting those goods to market also depends on having a steady supply of labour. Notably, the government approved the full implementation of a federal loan program that lets skilled workers waiting for their foreign credentials be recognized in Canada, and borrow money to cover expenses while their applications are being processed.

The budget bore no mention of an agriculture labour program that would allow the industry to bring in people and help transition those workers into permanent staff, an idea that industry has been lobbying the government on for months.

Nor was there any announcement of an exemption for agriculture from limits on the number of low-skilled workers allowed at each work site, first announced last June. In fact, the budget clearly reiterated the Conservatives commitment to seeing those changes through.

While few were expecting major lump-sum funding announcements for the agriculture sector given most of the industry’s federal funding is approved every five years under Growing Forward, the rumour going into the budget lockup was that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would see cuts, again.

That rumour never happened as there was no mention of food safety in the 2015 Economic Action plan.

In a time of global economic uncertainty, where oil-dependent nations and regions are turning to their agriculture sector for economic leverage, Canada’s financial plan appears to have missed the mark once again for a $106 billion industry responsible for one in eight jobs.

Both Alberta and Saskatchewan have said they need their agriculture industry to step forward to help weather the economic turbulence. One would have expected the federal finance minster to the same.


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