Panelists at a recent discussion said the industry provides one in eight jobs in Canada but is often ignored by the public
A month into the campaign heading toward the Oct. 19 federal vote and none of Canada’s main political parties has made any specific agricultural promises.
The industry’s profile in any federal campaign is rarely high, even though it provides one in eight jobs and food processing tops Canada’s manufacturing sector, noted panelists discussing agriculture policy in Ottawa last week.
Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett said there is a tendency to ignore agriculture because its full impact isn’t easily seen.
He told a recent panel organized by The Hill Times newspaper that agriculture must be recognized as an economic driver in rural communities and raising its profile is critical.
David McInnes, president of the Canadian Agricultural Policy Institute, agreed.
“This sector represents seven percent of GDP,” he said. “In fact the food processing sector is the number one manufacturing segment in this economy, exceeding that of the aerospace and auto sector. I wonder how many candidates in this election are aware of that.”
McInnes said the question of how the industry can reach its full potential as an important strategic economic sector should be raised.
He suggested people should be discussing how to foster investment in food processing. When processors close or move, market channels for producers also close.
“We should talk about tax credits and what we need to do to compete against those places such as the United States that want to pull our companies south and offer incentives to do so,” he said.
The panel also discussed trade agreements.
University of Toronto political scientist Grace Skogstad said the political parties should be honest about trade negotiations and how agriculture will be affected.
She said Canada must sign trade agreements because so much of the sector depends on access to foreign markets. However, she said governments and negotiators should admit that there are winners and losers in these talks.
“What I find regrettable is the perception that there are only winners in the agricultural sector when it comes to trade agreements,” she said. “We go into these trade agreements saying win-win….We’ve all learned with the trade agreement with the EU that’s not the case.”
That deal will allow more cheese from Europe into Canada.
Skogstad said governments should admit up front there will be costs and plan compensation and transition programs for those who will bear those costs. She said all the parties are campaigning on support for supply management but they should be honest about what that really means — that reform is required.
Bonnett said it’s not an either-or situation.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of a farmer you are, having a good trade deal in place is important,” he said. “On the export side, if we don’t get a trade agreement where we are on equal footing with other countries we lose market.
“But at the same time, if you’re a supply management farmer you need to know what the rules are. There’s got to be confidence in the industry.”
The most recent talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership ended without a deal. Canada’s position on supply management is said to be a sticking point.
Skogstad said she doesn’t expect a deal before the vote.
“I don’t believe the TPP is actually going to see the light of day,” she said. “It certainly won’t see the light of day this year.”
Other issues raised during the panel discussion included chronic agricultural labour shortages, which CFA has identified as one of its main concerns, social licence and foreign subsidies.
McInnes said the program that sees 47 million Americans receive food stamps stimulates American agricultural production and helps processors achieve scale.
“No wonder our food processors are challenged in how do we remain competitive when we’re up against a giant that uses subsidies to great effect,” he said.
He also pointed out the U.S. dairy sector taps into southwest aquifers to stay in business but that cost isn’t truly reflected when the U.S. calls for Canada to end supply management.
“Can we raise the sustainability bar on our competitors?” McInnes asked.
Canada has water, land and other natural advantages it should use to its advantage, he said.
CFA plans to host an agricultural debate Sept. 30 in Ottawa, during which it hopes to hear more details of what each party plans for agriculture.