Agriculture can help revitalize Canada’s post-COVID economy, but the federal government should clear the track for the sector.
That means updating regulations to encourage technological innovation, improving market access for agricultural exports and recognizing farm practices that help the environment, says the Grain Growers of Canada (GGC).
The organization, which represents 15 regional, provincial and national grain farmer groups, took that message to Ottawa last week during its post-harvest lobby effort, GGC executive director Erin Gowriluk, said in an interview Nov. 17.
“Our theme is ‘Growing Back Better’ and we’re building on the government plan to build back better,” she said. “That’s really about what Canadian farmers need to position the sector as one that is really going to contribute to the post-pandemic economic recovery.”
Why it matters: The federal government has identified increased agriculture and food exports as a way to boost Canada’s economy, but the Grain Growers of Canada says the federal government can help agriculture to do more.
Canadian farmers rely heavily on exports, but there are no exports without access to international markets. The Canadian government has focused on negotiating and ratifying new trade agreements.
“We are actually calling on the government for a policy pivot with respect to international trade,” Gowriluk said.
“Let’s implement and enforce those trade deals. And then let’s look very closely at the market access challenges we’re having in India and China where we don’t have free trade agreements, but we do need more government support.”
In March 2019 China all but ceased importing canola seed from Canada, claiming it was contaminated with weed seeds and plant diseases. But it was widely believed to be in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Chinese tech giant Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in December 2018 at the United States government’s behest.
Canadian canola oil and soybean exports to China fell too. Although canola seed and oil exports to China have increased since, they haven’t fully recovered.
Tariffs have also disrupted Canadian pulse exports to India.
“Certainly China banning exports of canola has hurt us,” Saskatchewan farmer Paul Thoroughgood, said in the GGC video entitled “Today’s Modern Grain Farm: A Harvest Across Canada.”
“It probably knocked 50 cents to a dollar off the price, which immediately hits your bottom line. It also hurt our ability to deliver and be able to make cash flow…”
The video debuted Nov. 16 as the GGC launched its lobby effort with around 100 MPs and senators taking part online, Gowriluk said.
Saskatchewan farmer Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel says in the video that China’s trade actions “keep me up at night, that’s how concerned I am about it.”
Canada needs to diversify its markets, she added.
“It terrifies me to rely on countries like China as our single largest trading partner for some of the commodities that we grow. We have to have learned our lesson and there is room for us to improve on building relationships on international trade.
“It’s important to me, as a farmer, that we’re always exploring new markets. So we’ve been a bit reliant on a select few markets and it’s important that we continue to explore building relationships with other countries so we always have opportunities to sell what we grow.”
Canadian farmers also need access to the latest in crop varieties, Thoroughgood says in the video.
“And if we don’t access to that technology, or better technology, we fall behind,” he said. “If we fall behind we can’t successfully run a farm operation and we can’t have a successful agriculture industry in this country.”
CropLife Canada CEO Pierre Petelle stressed that point later during a panel discussion. Other countries are welcoming new technology while Canadian regulations discourage it, he said.
“So gene editing is one example of new plant-breeding innovation,” Petelle said. “But there’s more coming and when we are paralyzed in fear, or uncertainty on how to progress, you’re basically sending the message that you’re not really welcoming to those technologies and that’s where we’re at in Canada right now frankly. We’ve got to move and send a signal very clearly that on the plant-breeding, innovation space, Canada is at the front and is ready to accept and wants those new technologies…
“We need to have all of government working together to really enable and looking at where the pinch points are for agriculture.”
The federal throne speech talked about recognizing farmers for what they do to benefit the environment. The GGC wants to find out how the government intends on recognizing that contribution, Gowriluk said.
“So sustainability is part of what we do each and every day,” Jolly-Nagel says in the video.
“This farm has celebrated 100 years farming the same land so sustainability is just part of what we do. Farmers get a bit challenged, maybe a bit defensive, when we’re asked… ‘what does your farm do to be sustainable?’ Every year we have to make decisions that are good for the next year, good for the next generation.”
Jolly-Nagel also wants the government to know farmers rely on an efficient supply chain to get farmers’ products to market. Last year the grain market suffered because of railway blockades and a labour strike at CN Rail.
GGC, which includes the Manitoba Crop Alliance as a member, was planned to hold four to six online meetings a day with two GGC teams of five to six farmers last week with MPs, senators and government officials, Gowriluk said.
That was how the GGC lobbied in the past, except the meetings were in person, she added.
“We’re doing that all on Zoom and Microsoft Teams and meeting with different officials virtually. It seems to be going well so far,” Gowriluk said.
GGC will lobby legislators and officials again in late February or March before farmers get busy with seeding, she said.