Competitive Improvements Depend On Your View

Farm groups trying to answer MPs’ questions about improving the competitiveness of producers have a lot of similar suggestions mixed with the occasional poke at the Canadian Wheat Board.

Most have told the Commons agriculture committee the industry needs more basic research, expanded trade deals, better transportation and more domestic processing. They share considerable optimism about overseas market if access can be improved.

The committee is working toward writing a report to Parliament before the summer recess.

Mostly livestock and crop groups have appeared so far. Among the latest were the Canola Council, Pulse Canada and the Western Canadian Wheat Growers.

Canola Council president Jo Anne Buth said her sector is trying to grow its annual output to 15 million tonnes from the 12.6 million tonnes of 2008. “For the past three years, canola was the most profitable crop for producers. In 2008, it delivered $4.9 billion in cash receipts with most of those dollars coming from export markets.”

The canola industry grew through a sound strategy, she noted. “Targeted investments, strategic research and innovation, trade agreements and market promotion have been essential to building and maintaining our competitive advantage and we need to continue to work at it so our competitors don’t overtake us. Our competitors are not typically other countries, but other vegetable oils.”

Both private and public research is needed to develop better plant varieties and new traits, she said. At the same time, the government’s regulatory system must smoothly allow new products onto the market. “Reforms to variety registration, resourcing, and the refining of plants with novel traits, novel food and novel feed regulations are critical for farmers to access new technology.”

Alberta farmer Barry Grabo, the chairman of Pulse Canada, said Canadian farmers supply 40 per cent of the world pulse demand.

The challenge for the industry is remaining competitive, he added. His industry has identified five priorities – better research, improved transportation and market access, looking after the needs of existing customers, more involvement with the processed food industry and stressing the health and environmental benefits of the crop.

While a new WTO agreement must remain a long-term goal, Canada needs more bilateral trade agreements “that keep pace with those of our competitors,” he said. “We have to be able to export pulses and have the same import tariff as enjoyed by other exporting nations.”

Mike Bast, chairman of the Wes tern Canadian Wheat Growers Associat ion, said Canada can’t afford to be complacent in agriculture production or trade matters. “The emergence of low-cost producers in countries such as Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Argentina, and Australia means we must always be open to ways to boost our yields, improve quality, or lower costs.”

Canada’s share of the world wheat trade has dropped to under 15 per cent from 23 per cent in the early 1990s, he said. “In the past 20 years, our declining competitiveness in wheat has caused Prairie wheat acreage to decline by 12 million acres.”

The elimination of KVD in the wheat variety registration system “was one important step in regaining our competitiveness in wheat,” he added. It will result in “the development of cultivars with higher yield potential and better agronomic traits.”

More research is needed in cereal crops to increase yields, he said. “In Canada, biotechnology has led to dramatic yield gains for soybeans, corn, and canola. We believe this technology can offer the same sort of yield and quality improvements in wheat.

“Research is also underway that would allow plants to improve their uptake of nitrogen and other nutrients,” he said. “This technology, if adopted, would allow us to reduce our fertilizer use without compromising yields.”

The CWB monopoly is a key reason wheat production in Western Canada has declined, he added. “For other crops, the ability to ship grain directly to processers and to export markets keeps Canadian grain-handling costs in check.”

Unlike wheat, canola processing is growing on the Prairies, he said. “Less than five per cent of the wheat produced on the Prairies is processed for food markets. In contrast, approximately 40 per cent of our canola is processed and with the recent new builds and expansion, this proportion is expected to reach 50 per cent.”

He said that since oats was removed from the CWB in 1989, oat acreage has increased by approximately 25 per cent on the Prairies as has domestic oat processing.

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