Budget’s agricultural focus welcome news for farmers

Two years ago, the federal government identified agriculture as a key sector for growth in exports, but it has been some time since we’ve seen policy details in spending plans.

In that vein, last week’s federal budget was welcome.

It is unfortunate, however, that it comes at a time when an election looms, meaning some or all of what’s in the budget will be subject to the caprice of the electorate, which may not be thrilled with a Liberal government currently in turmoil.

Canada’s agricultural sector needs to be higher on the policy agenda if it is to reach its potential contribution to the economy.

Still, several moves are being well-received by grain groups, including the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, whose new president, Mary Robinson, said the budget “is a step in the right direction.”

Substantial initiatives were announced in the supply-managed sector, food security, research, regulation review and technology (particularly broadband internet).

The most significant agricultural aspect of the budget is compensation for the supply-managed sector — $3.9 billion, mainly for dairy, poultry and egg farmers — for markets opened up to more imports in trade deals. Some observers were surprised this was pretty much the same plan as that of the previous Harper government (which had $4.3 billion in compensation), but that plan was, for the most part, grudgingly accepted by the industry, so it shouldn’t have surprised that much.

A planned review of the Canada Grain Act could be significant. It was updated in 2013, but it has not seen a comprehensive review since the 1970s. The review should address whether the Canadian Grain Commission’s inspection of grain and the associated costs will remain mandatory or whether inspections should move to the private sector.

There is also $134.4 million for a national food policy, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in his election campaign.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture has been calling for this since 2011. Initiatives include a campaign to urge consumers to buy healthy Canadian agricultural products, a national school food program to encourage healthy eating, $50 million to boost local food infrastructure and $20 million to address food waste, which has an enormous upside if it yields specific plans.

A report earlier this year by the food recovery group Second Harvest concluded that 58 percent of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted and that about one third could be salvaged.

The commitment to broadband is also important. Two million Canadians don’t have access to reliable, high-speed internet. The budget allocates $1.7 billion to provide access to broadband by 2030.

This will be a major competitive upgrade for rural Canadians, including many producers. As well, broadband has been identified as an imperative for providing mental health services in rural areas.

About $219 million is being provided to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to streamline regulations and update systems. The CFIA plays a central role in the food process and trade, as we’re seeing with the current dispute with China, so this is welcome.

And there is at least $200 million earmarked for research, including $100 million for genomics.

It’s tempting to look at this as a laundry list of good intentions, since it depends on a Liberal government being re-elected. But the initiatives set out in this budget set the bar for the pending election campaign. The Conservatives and the NDP must now decide whether they will commit to an aggressive agenda in agriculture.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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