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COMMENT: The power of co-operation — and the cost of disunity

By working together, the agriculture sector can continue to accomplish great things

There is a common adage in agriculture “wheat is 14 per cent protein and 86 per cent politics.”

This was often applied in the era of debates over marketing, but it can still be fit today on many issues in agriculture. This is unfortunate and it comes at a cost.

When governments in Canada receive different and conflicting policy positions from different parts of the value chain, they can implement any option that brings the most political gain and still claim industry support. Often the politically expedient course of action is not the best outcome for the industry. Lack of unity also means that governments can justify doing nothing, citing a lack of consensus, when regulatory or legislative changes are required.

Multiple and differing views is not just a problem domestically, but can cause issues abroad, impacting Canada’s reputation for reliability.

Fortunately, it does not have to be this way. We have examples of the power of co-operation within agricultural value chains.

The most recent example is the collective effort of the Canadian grain industry on transportation. Reform to Canadian legislation governing grain transportation has been necessary for many years. The need for these changes was highlighted in the 2013-14 crop year and again last winter when poor rail service limits our ability to service customers.

If the grain sector had remained divided the federal government would have been able to say, “there is no consensus in agriculture,” and implemented policy tailored to political objectives. But that is not what happened. General farm organizations, commodity value chains, and exporters came together to deliver a common message to government on the need to introduce financial accountability for railway non-performance and new competitive tools to mitigate the impact of railway monopoly power.

As a united industry, we were able to work with the government in crafting Bill C-49 and work with members of Parliament and senators to ensure that the legislation implements a regulatory environment that will allow us to meet growing world demand and ensure that Canada is able to maintain our reputation as a reliable supplier.

A unified message from agriculture delivered by many voices has enormous political power. That unity has delivered reform that would not have occurred if agriculture had been divided.

The Keep it Clean program jointly delivered by Cereals Canada, the Canola Council of Canada and Pulse Canada is another strong example of industry collaboration at its best. The program has grown from original work carried out by the canola council to address the need to move deregistered varieties off of the market. The program has grown to encompass key issues like crop input products that do not have approval in key export markets, the importance of rigorously following the label when applying products (e.g. glyphosate) and best management practices to reduce mycotoxins like Deoxynivalenol or Ochratoxin A.

Each commodity organization could have developed its own brand to deliver messages to farmers. It would have been easier for each group to take an individual path. There would have been no need to get agreement from other organizations on messaging. There would have been only one logo on the individual materials delivered into farmers’ mailboxes.

But the individual path would not have been as effective. This joint program is not about protecting the turf or brand of individual associations. The purpose of the program is to ensure that farmers understand the international market impacts of decisions they make in their operations. We can do this more effectively through co-operation. A common message delivered across commodities has a much better chance of reaching through all the white noise directed at farmers every day.

I had a boss once who told me something I will never forget. He said, “you often will have a choice of getting credit for trying to get something done or getting something done.” Accomplishing key industry objectives may mean that credit does not always fall where it is due, but a unified effort stands a much better chance of addressing threats like rising protectionism and meeting the challenge of a rapidly evolving marketplace.

There is room for improvement on this front. We still see too many cases where the preservation of individual silos seems more important to organizations than the advancement of the industry as a whole. There are still times when people view other parts of the Canadian value chain as their competitors rather than their partners.

We can, and should, do better.

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