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Editorial: More of the same?

There’s a certain predictability to how the next round of agricultural policy discussions are unfolding.

With the Growing Forward 2 suite of programs set to expire in March 2018, many expect that what follows will closely resemble what’s being replaced.

That might not serve Canadian agriculture particularly well, however, since the sector is facing a period of change. Better to engage in a bold and thorough review of policy solutions to emerging issues, than simply continue down the path we’re on out of inertia.

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At least that’s the case made by Ontario-based agriculture economist Al Mussel and colleagues recently in a policy note titled What Should Shape the Next Canadian Agri-Food Policy Framework? from the Agri-Food Economic Systems think-tank. They write that inertia will lead to fiddling around the edges and debating budgets and resource allocation, rather than asking important questions.

The group calls this a “critical error,” noting “… the true magnitude of forthcoming changes demands a more strategic response.”

Key issues include the worsening economic situation on Canadian farms, the debt hangover from the recent boom years, the reality that agriculture will be affected by greenhouse gas policy, the possibility of a carbon tax and how the international political situation will affect current and future trade deals.

The dairy sector is undergoing its most extensive policy change in decades and the other supply-managed industries are on uncertain ground. Our food-processing sector has suffered a $10-billion loss in net trade balance in the past decade.

Consumers are more interested than ever in how food is produced, how that food impacts health, and how farming affects the environment. “Effectively the stakeholder base in agri-food has widened and prompted food-marketing initiatives that cater to these perceptions…” the policy note reads.

Against this backdrop, a program of more of the same would be a strategic error the academics claim, calling instead for “… bolder and more ambitious change based on increasingly different economic, social and environmental challenges than existed in previous… agreements.”

Essentially what they’re calling for in this document is a reordering of the horse and cart. Right now the cart is before the horse, resulting in policies that react to the past rather than prepare farmers for the future.

They’d prefer to see the horse before the cart, where policies have clear goals in mind and move the industry forward. They also suggest that the programs should take a larger-picture view and consider the entire value chain, rather than being almost entirely “producer-centric.”

Fortunately the report doesn’t just diagnose issues, it also suggests some possible solutions and areas where effective policy really could make a difference.

For example, there’s the question of the economic demographics throughout the agri-food sector. Both at the farm level and in the processing sector, there are fewer and larger players. In the food-processing sector that means there are really large processors, small processors, and not much in between. In many ways, this mirrors the experience on the farm level where there are very few medium-size farms. That makes one-size-fits-all agriculture programs very difficult.

For example, the smallest farms and processors likely need programs that either smooths their transition out of the sector, or encourages them to grow to a position of economic sustainability. Larger farms and processors need programs that address the inevitable volatility of the markets and keep Canada on a competitive footing.

The balance will be finding a spot that doesn’t make a large number of trivial payments to what are, essentially, non-commercial entities, while simultaneously avoiding the perception of “corporate welfare” to larger operations and companies, the authors say.

Trade-related policy should be more forward thinking, they say, including taking into account what policy initiatives are underway in key competitive regions. Better to address the problems of the future created by changes in Brazil and the Black Sea regions, for example, than fret about the problems of yesterday.

They go on to suggest other areas where attention should be paid, including internal trade, the environment, research and development, food processing and growing social pressures on the sector.

In essence, this is a call for action, rather than simply cleaving to the status quo. It’s available online agrifoodecon.ca.

Finding the right answers starts with asking the right questions.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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