Grain movement needs to get better

Build back better. It’s a catchy slogan adopted by the United Nations, Canada and other countries and it’s a good idea.

Throughout the pandemic, the Canadian agriculture and food industry has shown it is more than up to the task. But without the right practices, policies and infrastructure in place, it is becoming increasingly clear Canada will not be able to fully realize its potential to strengthen our economy through agri-trade in a post COVID-19 world.

From a transportation perspective, there are still labour disruptions, weather delays, derailments, and massive amounts of congestion in the containerized supply chain. That has left our industry with a serious problem.

The recent announcements from Canada’s rail carriers on moving record volumes of grain is something to celebrate, but there’s more to being a global leader and outcompeting other origins than volume.

For Canadian agri-food products to command the premiums they deserve, the timeliness of rail car spotting on the Prairies each week must improve.

Simply put, timing is everything. When rail cars aren’t spotted to match orders, there’s a ripple effect across the entire supply chain. Uncertainty at the point of origin forces every player to adjust plans, leading to delays and congestion at the port, not to mention demurrage and container detention fees.

Protracted delays lead to contract penalties and, over time, the risk of cancelled contracts. Building back better means we don’t just learn how to better manage through these conditions. It means we’re committed to eliminating them; delivering more grain while building a brand promise of consistent and reliable delivery.

When grain does make it through to the Pacific Gateway, it arrives at a port in need of a governance overhaul.

A recent campaign led by the Western Grain Elevator Association is drawing attention to the need to modernize port governance so the port better represents the commodities it serves. The vast majority of products shipped through the Port of Vancouver originate from the four western provinces who lack adequate representation. It cannot be overstated how important the Pacific Gateway is to the western Canadian economy.

The federal government must provide solutions that promote investment and accountability at Canada’s ports.

Labour issues continue to produce uncertainty, most notably with strike action possible at the Port of Montreal.

Exporters are already being asked by customers in high-value markets to avoid shipping through the port, not wanting a repeat of disruption from the summer of 2020.

Having to make these alternative arrangements places strain on Canada’s logistics system and deals a blow to customer confidence.

Pulse Canada and like-minded groups across Canadian agriculture are calling for action to #StoptheStrike. They are trying to find a solution that helps parties reach an agreement before there’s another work stoppage.

While COVID-19 has presented unique challenges, it is clear that a national plan is needed to better address the issues critical to Canada’s economic recovery.

As a country, we are reliant on a well-functioning transportation network.

Pulse Canada is renewing its call for a national conversation on transportation, one that includes shippers from the agriculture, forestry, mining and chemicals sectors, as well as governments and other stakeholders.

For our part, we are ready to help build back better. Now is the time for strong leadership, common-sense policies and a commitment from everyone with a stake in Canada’s supply chains to help make it possible.

Greg Cherewyk is president of Pulse Canada.

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