Canadian agriculture must aim high

Positioning Canada’s agriculture sector as a global superpower should be a key focus for the federal government as the country recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agriculture represents $130 billion of our gross domestic product and employs 2.3 million Canadians, about one in eight jobs in this country. In many respects Canada is already an important player on the global stage (Canada is the fifth largest exporter of agriculture commodities in the world, 11th in agri-food commodities), but our current standing is not guaranteed, and we must position ourselves for future success in a low-carbon economy where global demand for food is expected to rise.

COVID-19 has illustrated areas of opportunity. During the height of the pandemic it became evident the extent to which Canada’s agri-food supply chain has become centralized. At the same time, Canadians have put an increased focus on where their food is coming from, creating a notable uptick in local buying.

While government policy and industry decision making on key agri-food processing infrastructure cannot be devoid of basic principles of economies of scale and business efficacy, there is clearly room to evaluate ways to protect food security in regions across the country.

The Barton Report noted that the agriculture and agri-food industry in Canada has potential to grow substantially by serving a growing global population and an increasing middle class of consumers emerging in developing countries.

How do we position ourselves accordingly?

First is a continued focus on innovation and research. Investments made under the prairie-based Protein Industries Supercluster is a promising start, but further investment in Canada’s agriculture research and development centres with an emphasis of solving regional or sectoral specific challenges is warranted.

Part of the innovation focus must also be on transitioning our agriculture sector to compete in the low-carbon economy of the future. About 10 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are tied to agriculture. I do not say this despairingly, simply to say that we need to see investment to help producers transition where possible, while developing policy to reward those who are already and will continue to sequester carbon.

A skilled workforce is key to any industry, and COVID-19 has underlined the inherent challenges the agriculture industry faces. A mixture of incentives to encourage young Canadians to get into the sector, coupled with an immigration strategy to recruit the best and brightest globally, would be a significant boost. While labour is key, so too is a renewal of Canada’s agri-food infrastructure, with a focus on advanced technologies and automation.

Finally, we need to find ways to partner with industry on mitigating risk. While climate change could be a net benefactor for Canada’s growing capabilities, wet springs on the Prairies, hurricanes in the Atlantic, and non-weather-related events such as trade disruptions present challenges. Returning business risk management programs to pre-2013 coverage levels is being called for by industry and should be answered.

Reducing risk can also be achieved by regulatory reform such as harmonizing provincial standards and removing inter-provincial trade barriers.

A focus on positioning Canada as an agriculture superpower has relevance across our country. So, let’s use this opportunity to build a better agriculture sector that is stronger, more innovative, and well positioned to succeed globally and generate greater prosperity at home.

Kody Blois is the MP for Kings-Hants in Nova Scotia, serves as a member of the House of Commons agriculture committee and is chair of the Liberal rural caucus.

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