Federal food policy faces many hurdles

The federal government’s pending national food policy must take into account the acute labour shortage the agriculture sector is facing and find a way to help Canada’s young farmers overcome barriers, says a new report from the House of Commons agriculture committee.

More than 20 recommendations were included in the House of Commons standing committee on agriculture’s report on the Food Policy for Canada.

The report was tabled in the House of Commons just before MPs headed home to their ridings for their winter break.

The committee heard from or received written testimony from more than 60 stakeholders during their study, which wrapped up this autumn, on the planned food policy, a key political promise that was included in the Liberals 2015 election platform.

“The committee believes that this first food policy will bring producers and consumers closer together to help them produce food responsibly, in a manner that respects the environment and animal welfare,” the report reads.

However, MPs said achieving that outcome will require co-operation among a broad range of stakeholders and a willingness from government to address the difficulties facing Canada’s agriculture.

Challenges like labour.

“For the agriculture and agri-food sector to continue to grow and develop, it must be productive and competitive, while having access to an adequate supply of labour,” the report reads, including a possible pathway to permanent residency.

That recommendation echoes a similar request included the finance committee’s pre-budget report, also tabled before the winter break.

Canada’s labour shortage in the agriculture sector has been at near critical levels for years. Farms and processors have long relied on temporary foreign workers and seasonal workers to fill the void, a process the sector says has been made more difficult because of changes made to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

In 2016, it was estimated that nearly 60,000 on-farm jobs were going unfilled in Canada.

That labour shortage isn’t the only challenge that risks undercutting the future of the farm sector.

“The rising cost of farmland is an obstacle for people seeking to enter agriculture,” the report reads. “The next generation of farmers often does not have the means to buy land at high prices. Furthermore, agricultural land is increasingly being used for urban development.”

The price of land isn’t the only figure that’s rising. MPs also remarked on the fact Canada’s farm population is getting older, while the number of farmers in this country under the age of 35 has shrunk 70 percent since 1990, the report noted.

Three-quarters of farmers are expected to retire over the next 10 years,” the report said. “Yet only eight percent of them have a succession plan in place.”

Not only that, but many of those who are entering the sector are folks who don’t have a traditional farm background, or any farm background at all.

The National Farmers Union told the committee that 80 percent of new farmers do not have a farming background and typically operate small- to medium-sized organic operations.

Meanwhile, 44 percent of Canadian farmers have off-farm income, with nearly a third of this country’s farmers working 30 hours a week or more in an off-farm job.

Ottawa’s national food policy will also require buy-in from consumers, MPs were told.

“Industry stakeholders expressed concern about Canadians’ expectations for industry practices, the report notes.

Otherwise, “if the public and the industry do not reach an understanding on modern agricultural practices, the food policy may not be implemented successfully.”

The federal government is expected to finalize its food policy this spring.

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