Editorial: Cupcakes, and mac and cheese

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s announcement machine seems to be at full speed recently — as of Monday there had been 21 so far this year. Several have been for projects where government support is entirely appropriate — research into pulses, soybeans, sustainable beef production and others.

On the other hand it should be noted that such announcements mask the reality of federal support for agricultural research. A few hundred thousand one day and a couple of million the next may sound impressive, but in fact they are already budgeted or tied to matching industry support. In total, federal support of agricultural research is actually on a sharp decline.

Amounts notwithstanding, supporting research is a good thing if it benefits farmers or industry as a whole. That doesn’t apply to some of Mr. Ritz’s recent announcements, which have nothing to do with the industry as a whole and everything to do with getting Ontario votes in the impending federal election.

It started Feb. 10 with an “investment” — though in this case a repayable loan of $3.7 million — for fibre-separation technology at Integrated Grain Processors Cooperative, an ethanol plant in Aylmer, Ont. A useful improvement no doubt, but there are other ethanol plants in Canada — why support only this one?

Next up on Feb. 11 in Mississauga was a rather vague announcement of $3 million — no mention of it being repayable — to “a new research cluster led by the Canadian Food Innovators” and which “will help the food- and beverage-processing industry in developing new processes that enhance quality while managing food safety risks, as well as new products that deliver health and wellness attributes marketed to health-conscious consumers.”

Hard to argue with health and wellness. But the next day Mr. Ritz was in Scarborough to announce an “investment” — also no mention of it being repayable — of $4.9 million in new “state-of-the-art” pastry-processing technology for Tradition Fine Foods, a manufacturer of frozen pastry. The release was accompanied by a photo of the company’s products. They certainly look tasty but it must be said that they are pretty much fat and sugar bombs, hardly in keeping with the previous day’s health and wellness theme. And as any of us who have ever visited a supermarket know, there is no shortage of sugar- and fat-laden pastries from other manufacturers. Why support this one?

But the real howler was the announcement between the last two — “Harper government invests in pasta-processing industry.” One almost hesitates to raise this, as it may lead to more pointless corpse prodding by those who think they can bring the Canadian Wheat Board back to life. But we can’t let this by.

It will be recalled that one of the persistent criticisms of the old CWB was that it discouraged value-added processing, and that it was responsible for the absence of a pasta plant in the heart of Saskatchewan durum country. It will also be recalled that in 2011, Alliance Grain Traders CEO Murad Al-Katib, accompanied by Prime Minister Harper and Mr. Ritz, said he would build such a plant once the CWB monopoly ended. In 2012 it was announced that the project was on hold.

So where is the pasta plant where the Harper government is investing $3.4 million (no mention of a repayable loan)?

Brampton, Ontario.

The release says investment in Italpasta will “assist in the purchase and installation of pasta packaging and production equipment required for the manufacture of macaroni and cheese and long goods.” It’s expected to create eight full-time jobs and “increase the demand for locally produced semolina and cheese.”

Semolina is a type of coarse flour made from durum wheat, of which little if any is grown in Ontario. But the Saskatchewan farmers who do grow durum should not resent the pasta plant being in Ontario. That’s exactly where it should be, because it’s close to the population where most of the pasta is consumed. It has never made economic sense to make pasta — which is full of holes and air — and ship it halfway across the country. It makes even less sense in these times of limited transportation capacity (a point of which Mr. Al-Katib, now the grain industry representative on the national transportation review, will no doubt appreciate).

However, Saskatchewan durum growers or any other taxpayers have to question why their money is being given to an already-successful company to gain market share. As the government release tells us, Italpasta has grown from 10 employees in 1989 to 220 today. Why does it need more help?

The funds for these announcements are coming from the Growing Forward 2 “AgriInnovation” program. A new variety of fusarium-resistant wheat or bloat-free alfalfa would qualify as innovation. Cupcakes or macaroni and cheese don’t.

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