Agriculture usually seems to find itself part of the national political discussion when problems have hit – extreme weather affecting crops, transportation issues, rising prices, etc. It is rare that this important sector gets to be part of the national spotlight for positive reasons, maybe because Canadians take for granted a food system that provides some of the most affordable, nutritious and abundant food on the planet. Today, however, a confluence of economic and political circumstances have aligned to give agriculture a moment in the spotlight.
As part of the federal government’s efforts to drive innovation and search for growth, an Advisory Council on Economic Growth was struck, charged with the task of coming forward with key policy recommendations that would help move the Canadian economy back towards three per cent annual growth.
This council, chaired by Dominic Barton, tabled its report to the government ahead of the 2017 federal budget and, as anticipated, agriculture has been highlighted as one of the key sectors for growth.
In fact, the Advisory Council is using agriculture and agri-food as a model for how a targeted growth sector might work. They have outlined growth targets both across the industry as a whole and for specific sectors. More helpfully, they have detailed how growth might be leveraged, including the streamlining of regulation under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to speed up approvals. They also propose a panel, of which the plant science sector would be a part, to advise government on growth strategies for the sector.
This quote from the report is particularly powerful:
“The Canadian agfood sector has great potential, given the large natural endowment of water and arable land, distinctive record of accomplishments in research, and exceptional base of companies and entrepreneurs. This sector also has exposure to favourable global market trends including demand from fast-growing Asian economies where protein consumption is on the rise. These assets, coupled with the scale of the existing obstacles, provide the potential for material economic gains for Canadians while also providing a blueprint for how the government and private sector may work together to unleash Canada’s potential in other sectors.”
Agriculture as a blueprint for other sectors – we have been waiting quite some time to hear those words in official Ottawa.
The paper sets some lofty targets such as increasing Canada’s share of global agricultural exports to 8 per cent from its current 5.7 per cent, thus making us the second-largest agricultural exporter, after the United States (the U.S. accounts for 14.8 per cent of the total). In the agri-food sector, the Barton Report goal is to double our share of world exports to 5.6 per cent from the current 2.8 per cent. Barton feels strongly that our food processing sector in particular is badly underdeveloped, and that Canada is well-positioned to quickly improve in that area.
As comprehensive and forward looking as the Barton Report is, however, it will only have value if it prompts meaningful policy action. For many years shelves in Ottawa have sagged under the weight of accumulated reports, many well-researched and full of excellent ideas that died due to a lack of action or political will. In November 2015, for instance, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne challenged her province’s agfood sector to double its annual growth rate and create 120,000 jobs by the year 2020. Over a year later, this challenge has been accompanied by no significant Ontario government policy changes that would bring it to fruition. On the contrary, agfood producers in Ontario continue to struggle under the weight of high energy costs, and grain farmers are saddled with new regulations on treated seed that layer on red tape and put their productivity in jeopardy.
The federal government is to be commended for engaging someone of the calibre of Dominic Barton to lead a forward thinking public policy exercise. Mr. Barton and his team have now produced some outstanding work for policy makers to consider, and agriculture stakeholders have been given the gift of a visionary federal government policy framework.
It is now up to all of us to move forward and champion this report, giving the federal government all the sound policy backup and encouragement they need to bring it to life. The kind of political opportunity in front of us now only comes along once. All the friends of modern agriculture from coast-to-coast now need to come together to make the most of it.
Acting president, CropLife Canada