Farm safety net needs overhaul: sector study

Canada’s farmers and its agriculture and food industries need to pull together to support the federal government massively re-engineering the farm support system.

If they don’t, public support will likely fail to provide the political basis to provide the safety net farmers need to survive in the future, says a policy note from Agri-Food Economic Systems.

“The appearance of a sector fragmented across a range of commodities and regions, all in need but in competition with one another, is likely to undermine existing public support,” write authors Al Mussell, Douglas Hedley and Ted Bilyea of the Guelph, Ont., analytical outfit.

The analysts aren’t calling for mere revisions to Canada’s farm safety net nor even a more significant overhaul. They believe the future is likely to demand an expanded system with a new layer of support that can be brought in strategically when geopolitical factors erupt and challenge the ability of farmers to cope.

Those factors could include incidents of foreign bullying and manipulation, and a general situation of power-based negotiating of market access as opposed to a rules-based approach.

When non-fundamental factors threaten Canadian farm stability, the government should play a role in covering farmers’ exposure.

“It seems there will be a need to differentiate between (business risk management) programming that stabilizes producers for rough patches within normal variation, as distinct from income strains occurring from non-normal situations.”

That could include ad-hoc and sporadic payments during times of stress.

Mussell, Hedley and Bilyea say their call for a revolution in Canada’s farm policy assumptions, approach and structure comes from their acceptance that the rules-based, free-trade-embracing era of the past 25 years might be over. If a new era has been entered, new approaches will be required.

All countries face this changed environment, but Canada not only doesn’t have the advantages of the giant economies like the United States, China and the European Union, but also faces more export exposure than almost anywhere else.

“Canada is perhaps uniquely vulnerable, with a narrower set of farm products produced impacted by the support programs of others and a relatively large exposure to exports,” the note observes.

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