Ag debate a good airing but left many questions

Political debates offer parties the opportunity to explain their priorities and challenge their opponents.

In that respect, the agricultural debate held Sept. 24 was moderately successful.

Liberal Marie-Claude Bibeau, who was minister of agriculture in the Trudeau government, and Conservative agriculture critic Luc Berthold were handcuffed by their parties’ decisions not to release their agricultural platforms before the debate.

Bibeau at least could point to her party’s record on agriculture, (goals set for export growth, investment in the protein supercluster, more money for research, the accelerated investment incentive, a new rural economic development ministry, plans to expand broadband). But Berthold was reduced to lobbing peanuts at the Liberals while talking about his own party’s position only in broad terms.

NDP agriculture critic Alistair MacGregor was articulate, but when asked if he supported genetically modified food he said no. There goes Canada’s canola, soybeans, corn and sugar beets. MacGregor said gene editing is the preferred method for enhancing crop resilience, adding the “the argument (on GMOs) has been put to bed many years ago.”

It was indeed: science shows that GMOs are safe.

The Green Party’s Kate Storey, an organic farmer who has run in every election since 2006, spent the debate trying to build a castle in the sky. The Greens have been unable to square their preference for organics with the increased amount of carbon that would be released through increased tillage. Their climate-change plan would reduce Canada’s cattle herd to cut methane emissions, eschew exports and reduce the amount of crops produced, cut the amount of food imported by one third and move mainly to small, local organic farms. All this can be found in the castle’s dungeon.

On the key issue of what to do about the impasse with China on canola, beef and pork, Bibeau was open to criticism from Berthold about the Liberals’ measured approach, but the situation is unsolvable unless Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is released, and no party has said it would do that. Berthold’s contention that a Conservative agriculture minister “would have jumped on a plane to go and resolve the issue” was eye-rolling.

Unfortunately, there was no discussion about royalties on farm-saved seeds.

Candidates were asked whether activists should be allowed to enter Canadian farms, which they dutifully answered in the negative, but the question should have been whether they would be willing to toughen laws and enforcement against protesters who enter farms, which they didn’t address.

Asked about risk management programs, Storey built a ladder to the Greens’ castle by complaining that “taxpayers are paying to prop up industrial hog barns that the taxpayer doesn’t like.”

MacGregor said they aren’t good enough, Berthold said the Conservatives recognize the problem and Bibeau promised to have a better formula for AgriStability for the coming growing season.

Producers would no doubt liked to have seen more depth in this discussion.

The most animated discussion concerned temporary foreign workers, mainly because Storey referred to the program as “nothing more than modern-day slavery.”

This suitably horrified the other candidates but there is an argument to be made for improving the rules in the program.

The debate did reiterate the Liberals’ approach based on their record, and how out of touch the Greens are, but there was little to help producers clarify what the NDP and Conservatives would do should they have a say in government.

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

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