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Yes, we can

New report from the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute calls for ‘quality growth’ strategy as Canada eyes roughly doubling export share by 2027

A new report released by a Canadian think-tank urges the agricultural sector to set its sights on ‘quality growth’ as it aims to increase agri-exports over the next decade.

The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s report, Barton Forward: Optimizing Growth in the Canadian agri-food sector comes as the sector now eyes boosting agri-food exports to $75 billion by 2027.

The ambitious target was set in 2016 after the federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, led by Canadian management consultant Dominic Barton, tagged agriculture and agri-food as among the six sectors expected to lead the country’s national growth over the next 10 years.

Last fall and this spring CAPI posed questions in a series of cross-country consultations as to whether the target is realistic, and if so, how to approach it.

The conclusion of its new Barton Forward report on what’s needed to achieve the goals of the ‘Barton Report,’ is ‘yes, we can,’ but there are critical challenges and risks to be considered.

“Achieving $75 billion in exports by 2027 may be challenging but it is quite doable,” the report released June 22 said.

“However, it is far from clear how we can do this while maintaining and enhancing Canada’s natural capital and improving health and well-being of current and future Canadians, as well as preserving public trust,” it also says.

CAPI did this because it was important to hear what people were thinking about how this emphasis on exports could affect the domestic environment, said Ted Bilyea, past chair and special adviser to the CAPI board of directors in an interview.

“There’s nothing wrong with the numbers,” he said.

“But it’s a much deeper question as to whether those numbers are actually achievable.”

The report cites a series of challenges, risks and trade-offs, as well as solutions and opportunities, drawn from the consultations, around questions that also included, ‘could that level of growth be achieved while maintaining and improving Canada’s natural capital?’ and, ‘is going forward with this compatible with other key policy objectives?’

Also asked was, ‘does science and innovation hold the key to meeting the growth targets?’

Among the most pressing issues is the implications this could have for negative impacts to the country’s natural capital; there are examples worldwide of what significantly ramping up production to the expense of soil and water resources has had, said Bilyea.

“Essentially we can’t win any races to the bottom, but we can certainly win a race to the top,” he said.

“A long-term vision must have its eye on more than just reaching a targeted number for export growth over a decade. Its focus must be on the quality of growth that pays attention to natural capital, that will enable the sector to continue to grow in the decades to follow, and to the health and well-being of Canadians so that they are not compromised by food insecurity and climate change.”

Without attention to those issues the agricultural sector won’t sustain long-term growth nor contribute fully to a comprehensive growth strategy for the country, the report says.

With respect to this being a realistic target, the report notes to a very large degree reaching the goal depends on what the world will want from its global food trade partners in the years ahead.

Many countries, including China, are projected to experience slowing population growth and slower growth in gross domestic product (GDP) over the next decade, it notes.

“This will translate into slower growth in demand for most commodity groups, such as cereals, meat, fish and vegetable oils,” the report says. However, a move toward a more western-style diet among the expanding middle classes in China and India will boost preference for premium products, which is expected to offset that decline.

“This will have implications for global agri-food exports of high-value products, such as animal protein, organics and safe, healthy and sustainable products from top exporting countries, such as Canada,” it says.

How the industry is to achieve the Barton Report goals is now the focus of the Government of Canada’s Economic Strategy —Agri-Food Table, whose own interim report has identified five priorities, including increasing innovation and seizing value-added opportunities, adopting technology and advancing digitization, modernizing infrastructure and regulations, increasing market access and growing exports and dealing with labour shortages.

Those are indeed priorities, the CAPI report says, but its own conclusions add maintaining natural capital, monetizing all costs and benefits, attention paid to human health and well-being and the founding of new partnerships as critical priority areas, as well.

“Not caring for the natural capital could accelerate environmental degradation resulting in losses in productivity and erosion of public trust, which would impede Canada’s longer-term prospects,” it says, and “the health and well-being of Canadians are not to be compromised by food insecurity, inequality of incomes, rising health-care costs, and climate change.

CAPI’s aim now is to get these messages out to broader groups — in industry, governments, research communities and NGOs and start conversations on how to develop new models of partnership.

How this all fits with other key agricultural innovation policies — CAPI’s consultation workshops were held amidst the development of the National Food Policy (NFP), the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, and others — boils down to co-ordination, Bilyea said.

“It’s about essentially thinking, in the big-picture sense, about what it is we’re trying to do. ”

“What CAPI is trying to say here is, ‘we can do this and do it for the long term… if we do it right.’

“The sector’s future growth is now poised at the intersection of virtually every policy area vital to our long-term growth and survival, from international trade to innovation, from environmental protection and stewardship to improved human-animal-planet health.”


Targets with caveats

The federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth has set a target for Canada to export $75 billion in agri-food products by 2027. That’s roughly doubling the country’s export share in a decade.

The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s new report says ‘Yes, we can’ but…

WE MUST MAINTAIN NATURAL CAPITAL
Not caring for the natural capital could accelerate environmental degradation resulting in losses in productivity and erosion of public trust, which would impede Canada’s longer-term prospects.

WE MUST MONETIZE ALL COSTS AND BENEFITS
Canadians certainly desire the multi-faceted growth objectives of the Barton Report, but these objectives will be difficult to achieve unless the industry, with the assistance of government and research communities, develops new ways to monetize the quality and sustainability aspects of the growth agenda.

WE MUST SUSTAIN HUMAN HEALTH AND WELL-BEING
The health and well-being of Canadians are not to be compromised by food insecurity, inequality of incomes, rising health-care costs, and climate change; food policy, agricultural policy and science and innovation policy must be co-ordinated.

WE MUST CREATE NEXT-GENERATION CONNECTIONS
New models of partnership need to emerge to deliver an array of public and private solutions to issues of high importance.

About the author

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Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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