Danny Penner, the iconoclast who wants Canada’s farmers to get their voices together, has a fan in high places.
“I read your blog. I think it’s great,” Greg Meredith, an assistant deputy minister with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada told Penner during a question period April 2 during the Canada Grains Council’s annual meeting in Winnipeg.
Penner, who farms at Halbstadt, has issued several documents recently advocating western Canadian farmers consolidate their checkoff-funded commodity groups into a single, national farmer-run organization.
Meredith’s message was similar. The federal government needs a strong representative voice from the grains sector giving it direction, he said.
“And I know that there are some cynics who believe that bureaucrats actually love this balkanization so we can pick and choose what opinions we hear and amplify the ones that we like and try to ignore the ones that we don’t,” Meredith said.
“I don’t think we’re strategic enough to actually do that. So it would be much better if we had a dialogue with the sector that allowed us to make choices between grains in terms of investment and within grains.”
With the change to the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly last Aug. 1, who now speaks for wheat?
“Who do we talk to, to understand where we should be investing dollars or where we should be changing policy or what kind of regulatory environment needs to be adjusted to improve the sector’s prospects?” he said.
Meredith said the industry must act fast to capitalize on the opportunities created by rising population and wealth.
Canada’s grain competitors are moving ahead with higher yields and more investment in research and food processing, he said. Meanwhile, in Canada private-sector investment in both has plateaued, he said.
Canada needs to attract investment by having regulations rewarding it.
“I think government private-sector collaboration is going to be quite critical to Canada succeeding in the future space,” Meredith said. “The opportunity is enormous.”
To that end Canada is considering signing UPOV 91 (International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants), he said. The agreement can be implemented in a way that farmers are allowed to save seed, he added.
“The government is looking actively at these issues and I think the industry is very, very anxious at this particular time to encourage us,” Meredith said later in an interview.
The government is also looking at setting up a system to collect royalties on grain when it’s sold and then investing the money into varietal research, Meredith said.
While the government has also asked the grain industry to review the variety registration system to ensure “that it’s efficient, that it’s transparent and that it rewards breeders with quick approvals (and) quick registrations for new varieties,” Meredith said it’s unclear whether the present system acts as an impediment.
“I’m not sure that it is an impediment and that’s one of the reasons why we want to talk to those in the industry about it. I think we need to balance very carefully the quality assurance dimensions of the variety registration system and what that means to end-use customers and therefore what it means in terms of returns to producers.
“In a post-wheat board world where the wheat board and our own scientists were the dominant players, particularly on the wheat, rye and triticale committee, we’re just asking the members of the committee, ‘is this the best?’”
The current registration system has a lot of flexibility. Changes should be industry driven, reflecting the needs of both farmers and end-users, Meredith said.
Getting farmers and the rest of the grain sector to co-operate should be easier now that the polarized debate over the marketing monopoly is over, Meredith said.