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Farm Debate Mostly A Rerun Of Earlier Shows

Other than the occasional elbow in the direction of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, the two-hour debate among the main political parties on agriculture policy April 11 featured a lot of the same old taunts and promises.

Liberal Wayne Easter, Bloc Andre Bellevance and New Democrat Pat Martin, whose downtown Winnipeg riding includes the headquarters of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), questioned Ritz’s dedication to supply management and ripped him for trying to destroy the CWB during the debate sponsored by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA).

The newcomer to the debate was Kate Storey, a Manitoba organic grower and Green Party agriculture representative.

On several occasions, she chided “the boys” for their bickering and old ideas and generally showed a comprehensive understanding of the issues. But, like the nationally televised debate among the four main party leaders the next night, it’s not likely many minds were changed.

The candidates were answering questions posed by CFA members from across the country designed to get the candidates to talk about issues confronting farmers – the need for more research, compensation for loss of land to wildlife habitat, improving the various components of Growing Forward and supporting young farmers.

Bette Jean Crews, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, said in an interview after the debate it was unlikely farmers would have heard anything new because of the small differences in the party platforms. What concerned her from the debate was the government’s reluctance to support provincial business risk management programs. The other parties all back programs tailored to the needs of producers in different provinces.

Ritz said he’s discussing the programs with his provincial counterparts but as long as they’re based on cost of production and not market prices, Canada could be exposed to countervail challenges from other countries.

Ritz said agriculture has a promising future and “the Conservative government was actively working on trade agreements to gain new and expanded markets for Canadian farmers.”

It has increased the money for agriculture research and, if re-elected, will bring back priorities announced in the March 22 budget including an extra $100 million for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, a $50-million innovation fund, and ongoing help for pork producers struggling with a serious viral disease.

Easter said a Liberal government would work with farmers to develop agriculture policies that respond to their concerns. He challenged Ritz to explain how $11 billion in budget reductions suggested by Prime Minister Harper wouldn’t hurt farmers. He also attacked the Tory corporate tax cuts at a time when more public agriculture research is needed in Canada.

Bellevance said the Bloc would protect supply management, help farmers find more domestic markets and improve farm support programs.

Martin said Canada needs a strong agriculture minister for a change so farmers have an advocate at the cabinet table. The government should make sure that farmers get a bigger share of the revenue from rising exports and stop trying to plot the destruction of the wheat board.

Storey said government policy also has to accommodate small farmers and encourage food processing in rural areas to create more jobs. Government has to block substandard food from entering the country and introduce labels that “will enable consumers to find Canadian food.”

In their answers, the politicians said nothing about soaring world food prices and mentioned only in passing increasing the number of food inspectors, improving food labels and checking the safety of imported products more carefully. They all supported the idea of a National Food Strategy, which the CFA, the country’s largest farm group, started developing last year.

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