Bibeau saying the right things, but can she deliver the goods?

Agriculture Minister Marie Claude Bibeau is appearing to strike all the right notes following her reappointment to the position a few weeks ago, but her true measure has yet to be taken.

Almost immediately after retaining her cabinet posting, she left for Regina to attend Canadian Western Agribition.

She was able to win some favour by telling reporters she is working on the issue of high carbon pricing costs related to natural gas and propane used for grain drying and claiming farmers should be recognized for the work to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s expected Bibeau and her provincial counterparts will look at the issue of high grain drying costs when they meet later this month. But a full review of the carbon pricing system on the agriculture sector isn’t taking place until early 2020, so outside of advanced or better relief, farmers shouldn’t be expecting much.

Still, it’s assuring to know Bibeau is aware of the issues and living up to her reputation as being willing to listen to concerns.

During a Quebec City speech at the Union des producteurs agricoles, she again committed to looking at the AgriStability program, oft cited as a complaint by industry when reviewing business risk management programs.

It’s expected provincial agriculture ministers will lobby for that program to pay 85 cents of every dollar below the reference margin, but there are other issues beyond that. There could also be discussion on what reference margin to use for triggering the program.

According to a February 2019 internal federal document prepared for the deputy minister of agriculture, the program is “considered complex, unpredictable, and slow to respond to producers.”

Surely Bibeau and her provincial colleagues are aware of all this and will want to address it, but she might have a harder time convincing her federal cabinet colleagues such issues are worth addressing.

Agriculture will likely take a backseat to other matters around the cabinet table, and part of Bibeau’s true worth to the sector must be measured by how many tangible and positive changes in policy to producers she can bring.

While it is expected AgriStability will be at least tweaked, there is no indication or commitment right now that significant changes (read: a return to the 85 percent margin) will be made.

Based on what Bibeau has said so far — essentially that she wants a system more flexible to the new climate and commercial challenges — a more adaptable program could be on the horizon, but a more expensive one is likely not.

The same is true for the issue of giving credit to farmers for work they’ve already done in achieving greenhouse gas reductions.

That has long been an ask of farmers, who argue they don’t receive enough credit for their progress in curbing carbon emissions (notably by making progress on soils for crop and animal production a net carbon sink and reducing emissions from livestock).

There is a report from the Senate forestry and agriculture committee arguing for carbon offset credits for the ag industry and exemptions for all on-farm heating and cooling fuels — but the Liberals have shown little sign of accepting those recommendations.

Bibeau also assured in her speech to Quebec producers that her government will continue to protect supply management systems and not give up new shares of the market.

That may be true right now, but given that the Liberals were willing to pay nearly $4 billion to compensate losses from two trade deals, nobody should be convinced they wouldn’t do something similar again. Bizarre things happen around negotiating tables.

Producers should find comfort in a federal minister willing to listen, engage and address their concerns, but they shouldn’t get too comfortable given the federal government’s lack of action on some of these issues to date and her position sitting at a table where other priorities will likely come first.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing dfraser@farmmedia.com.

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