When the Harper government gutted Canada’s environmental review legislation as part of the 2012 omnibus budget, the public was told it was because the process was inefficient, slow and standing in the way of economic development.
But as researchers at the University of Toronto noted, federal officials “provided no evidence apart from the testimony of a handful of representatives of the resource extraction and energy sectors.”
So they took a look at the time it took to process environmental reviews undertaken between 2001 to 2011.
“They found no evidence that regulatory review in Canada was inefficient, even when regulators had an ongoing load of over 600 projects for review at any given time,” according to a release from NRC Research Press.
On the contrary, researchers Dak de Kerckhove, Ken Minns and Brian Shuter with the university’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology found that most environmental regulatory reviews were already being completed within the arbitrary new time frames laid out in the 2012 legislation restricting the scope of reviews.
“Arbitrary changes would therefore not expedite the review of the majority of projects, and may instead rubber-stamp those few projects that actually merit more in-depth reviews because of their potential to cause greater environmental damages,” said lead researcher de Kerckhove.
“Governments should recognize that environmental oversight is a necessary and valuable component of the approval process for development projects, and that alternate options exist for managing the submission load aside from weakening environmental protection,” says de Kerckhove.
There are striking similarities between this scenario and the proposition currently before the Canadian grain and oilseeds industry to reduce or eliminate merit assessments before new crop varieties can be introduced into the Canadian marketplace. Only instead of the environment, this is about compromising quality and farmers’ bottom line.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has instructed the variety recommending committees to undertake their own reviews to remove what he calls “barriers that unnecessarily encumber innovation in the crop sector.”
The Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association has already outlined its wish list, which we suspect will become Ritz’s road map for change.
Currently, varieties developed for Canadian producers must meet merit criteria in three areas, quality suited to a specific wheat class, disease and agronomic traits. These characteristics are evaluated by an industry committee after three years of co-op trials. Those committees vote as to whether the variety should be recommended for registration by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
The wheat growers want to adopt the Australian model for wheat varieties, which includes a body to determine the parameters of Canada’s wheat classes and a technical committee to decide where new varieties would fit. Merit testing for quality, disease resistance or agronomic traits would not be required but could be voluntarily conducted following its introduction.
“While Western Canada has an excellent reputation for producing high-quality wheat, we have fallen behind other countries in terms of our access to higher-yielding varieties,” says WCWGA president Levi Wood in a letter to Ritz.
“The wheat growers believe this new model will give farmers greater and faster access to an array of varieties that better meet the diverse growing conditions and market opportunities that face farmers across the Prairies.
Before this goes too much further, we’d like to see the scientific evidence backing up these claims. Looking across the border, and indeed across the globe, we note that most of the new varieties are coming out of publicly funded breeding programs, or through public-private partnerships, which suggest return on investment is the issue, not the registration system.
Nor would the evidence suggest that American spring wheat varieties necessarily yield better. Manitoba’s 10-year average wheat yield (2003-12) is 45 bushels an acre compared to 40 in North Dakota, according to a presentation to the Manitoba Agronomists Conference last December.
“New” and “more” is not always “better.” Farmers need to remember that one’s perspective on disease resistance differs based on whether you are a grower or a seed developer who also happens to be in the business of selling fungicides.
We would suggest that Canada’s competitive disadvantage lies not in the haste with which we introduce new varieties, but rather with our relatively shorter growing season, cool climate, and distance to market. It is these disadvantages that producing quality — and more importantly — consistent quality can overcome.