With the exception of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and concern about the trade deal’s effect on supply management, agriculture has not made election campaign headlines.
The days of agricultural platforms, announced by each party at a geographically and politically advantageous location, seem to be over.
This time, leaders made their obligatory stops at farms and all pledged their support for supply management, but agricultural promises were released quietly and generally late in the campaign.
Conservative candidate and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz said the sector is naturally included in initiatives designed to boost the economy, trade and infrastructure, and farmers don’t necessarily need their own platform.
For example, an early Conservative campaign promise would boost broadband access in rural areas.
Ray Price, president of the Sunterra Group, said that might be true, but he would like to see more politicians talking about agriculture and food.
He sits on the Canadian Meat Council board and said members have started to meet with politicians to help them better understand the industry.
“We’ve always felt that everybody knows about food,” he told the recent Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation conference. “We’re realizing now that very few people know what goes on in the food system.”
Price said the meat business employs more than 60,000 people across Canada, buys from 200,000 producers and exports $6 billion worth of product a year.
Auto parts suppliers employ 80,000 people and have a much higher profile.
“So we should be out there saying it’s the economic impact, it’s the job impact,” he said.
“It’s the export driven business that we have. We have to focus the message more on the impact of what agriculture is and what it can be.”
Mike von Massow, an economics and business professor at the University of Guelph who researches food and value chains, said food service is a $60 billion industry in Canada and employs one million people, many of them young students.
“We haven’t heard about it once in this campaign,” he said.
“The economic power of this industry, we have to communicate the right things in the right way to the right people and then we get it on the radar.”
He said politicians generally respond to issues rather than lead them, so politicians will start to pay attention if consumers begin to say something is important to them. However, von Massow said he doesn’t expect that to happen in the short term.
“A, we’re not worried about food to a large degree, and, B, we don’t vote on food,” he said.
“I think we have a big challenge with politicians and re-engaging them on the importance of food.”
Earlier in the campaign, the Green Party of Canada said in its platform that it supports local food and small-scale producers and wants to move away from the domination by global industrial food systems.
“We want to rebalance the equation by creating resilient local economies fueled by local growers, farmers and producers,” said the party’s document.
It would support young farmers who want to supply local and organic markets.
“We will fund community supported agriculture, farmers markets, small-scale farms and producers, and the wineries and microbreweries that Canadians love,” it said.
The Green party would also shift government-supported research from biotechnology and energy-intensive farming toward organic production.
Comments about the party’s platform by candidate Andrew West during the national agriculture debate hosted by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture Sept. 30 were dismissed by others who questioned whether the party understands agriculture at all.
For example, he said the party believes in a 200 kilometre diet and that farmers should manage their risk by diversifying rather than through government programs.
Liberal agriculture critic Mark Eyking was quick to tell West he was off base.
The Liberal platform, released last week, acknowledged farmers and ranchers as the foundation of the food sector.
It pledged $160 million over four years to an Agri-Food Value Added Investment Fund, which would help processors develop new products by providing technical and marketing assistance.
The Liberals would also add $100 million over four years to agricultural research and make sure the allocation of that money is transparent and involves food producers.
A Liberal government would invest an additional $80 million over four years in the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for both domestic and imported food inspections.
The Liberals also promised to continue to defend Canadian interests during trade talks and work with the provinces and other partners on issues such as water and soil conservation and development, including infrastructure.
They would initiate a rail costing review and reassess farm safety nets, along with provinces and producers.
On the Prairies, NDP leader Tom Mulcair released a brochure saying his government would create a national food strategy, expand risk management programs, support new farmers and “fix the damage” from the sale of the Canadian Wheat Board.
In the platform released Oct. 9, the party also promised to invest $110 million over four years to enhance the CFIA. The program to support young farmers would cost $85 million.
Regina area candidates announced last week that they would re-open the former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration shelter belt centre at Indian Head, Sask., as part of a commitment to renew public agricultural programs.
They said an NDP government would establish a long-term strategy for research and spend an additional $40 million over four years on public seed breeding and on-farm environmental stewardship.
NDP agriculture critic Malcolm Allen said cuts to research funding must be restored and that grain transportation is a key issue that must be addressed.
Vicky O’Dell, candidate in Souris-Moose Mountain, said the Conservatives take producers for granted.
“An NDP government will initiate a rail costing review that will ensure fair costs and better service for producers,” she said.
The Conservatives also ad-dressed grain transportation in their platform released Oct. 9, pledging to improve the transportation network and market access based on the recommendations of the Canada Transportation Act review.
Ritz said he expects that to be released shortly after the election.
The Conservatives acknowledged the family farm as the foundation of today’s Canada and promised to add $100 million to the Agri-Innovation program over three years, increase support for the Agri-Marketing Program, expand the activities of the Market Access Secretariat and defend supply management in all trade talks.