Ag minister has full plate but must heed farmers first

New federal agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay of Prince Edward Island will apply a much different political agenda in a much changed agricultural landscape compared to his Conservative predecessor.

From 2007 until the recent election, Gerry Ritz successfully pursued the Conservative agenda to reduce government involvement in agriculture.

The prime examples were eliminating the Canadian Wheat Board’s single desk and reducing the role of the Canadian Grain Commission.

His tenure coincided with a boom in the crop sector sustained by American ethanol policy, growing global food demand and crop failures in key production regions.

MacAulay, at 69 a long-term federal politician and previously a seed potato grower and dairy farmer, takes over the portfolio on the downhill side of the commodity cycle, when global grain stocks are rising, crop profits are scarce and the global economy is still struggling.

The Liberals don’t have a clear agenda for western Canadian agriculture, but they have several platforms sure to affect farmers, such as addressing climate change by lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture, as a producer of greenhouse gas such as methane, is sure to be targeted to play a role.

Prime minister Justin Trudeau plans to meet soon with the premiers to set a framework to combat climate change.

The Liberals promised money to promote energy innovation and clean technology as well as to support food processing, agricultural research and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

They promised to respect science, but also, as a government owing a lot to left leaning urban voters, it would not be surprising if they considered genetically modified labels on food.

MacAulay will sit at the cabinet table when such issues are discussed. He will also be involved in decisions about issues already on the agenda.

The government will decide whether to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. If it does he will have to decide whether to support the $4 billion, 15-year compensation plan to supply managed farmers proposed by the Conservatives.

The panel reviewing the Canada Transportation Act is set to file its report by the end of the year. Former astronaut Marc Garneau, the new transport minister, will lead the government’s response, but the agriculture minister is also traditionally deeply involved.

MacAulay will also begin intensive negotiations with provincial agriculture ministers over the next business risk management package to replace Growing Forward 2.

MacAulay will have to negotiate the fine line between farm groups’ call for a more robust plan to address the realities of tighter farm margins and governments’ desire for fiscal restraint.

All these tasks will require knowledge, judgment and finesse.

People in agriculture from MacAulay’s home province say he is a down to earth guy who listens and who stands up for farmers. He has cabinet experience in former prime minister Jean Chretien’s government.

We hope he will be the farmers’ voice in cabinet rather than the government’s spokesperson to farmers.

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