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Give Us The Tax Break And No One Gets Hurt

DAVE BEDARD

It’s hard not to sympathize with the folks in the province’s general farm organization as it lobbies on farmers’ behalf. Given all the “wedge issues” in farm policy, when you strive to stake out a position that a majority of farmers can support, the positions you adopt won’t generally lend themselves to a whole lot of righteous podium thumping.

So with very few exceptions (such as a call for the continued payment of railways’ grain freight revenue overages into the Western Grains Research Foundation endowment fund) it would be difficult for any farmer – or anyone at all – to knock the latest policy resolutions coming out of Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP).

Support the continued and expanded use of Churchill? Check. Support tax deferrals on income from herd liquidation due to disasters other than just drought? Check. Rural high-speed Internet, a freeze on Crown grazing land lease rates, expanded MASC coverage areas for corn and for soybeans? Check, check and double check.

It’s thus interesting that a resolution on “food safety procedures compensation” passed without much debate. If you missed it, it calls on KAP to “lobby the federal government to put in place a tax credit to compensate producers for extra efforts in completing on-farm food safety procedures.”

As reported here last week (“KAP demands tax credits for food safety,” Co-operator, Feb. 5, page 23), the association sees this as a way to compensate farmers for an ever-heavier burden in both time and expense. Citing the 10 days’ accumulated time given strictly to food safety-related paper pushing in his final season as a potato grower, KAP president and Portage la Prairie farmer Ian Wishart said food safety programs are a public service for which farmers need “some recognition and some rewards.”

Everyone in favour of recognition and rewards? Check. Never mind how regrettable it is that farm lobbying has come to this.

The resolution comes from the same group that championed Alternate Land Use Services (ALUS), a program that offers financial support for farmers’ environmental stewardship – inarguably a public service for the greater good, and work for which farmers would otherwise receive no direct cash benefit.

Of course food safety is also a public service, but ALUS it ain’t. Production of food for the public’s consumption is what farmers do for a living. All that paperwork is part and parcel of food safety – and for anyone who’d like to try and present food safety as a service separate from food production, here’s a question: define “food.”

Not even the European Union couches food safety as a public service in such terms. In new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) regulations, published Jan. 31 in the Official Journal of the EU, farmers’ cash aid can be docked or cut off if they fail to comply with food quality rules – and “cases of non-compliance which constitute a direct risk to public or animal health shall not be considered as minor.”

Certainly, there are precedents in Canada for helping the agrifood industry comply with food safety rules, such as the funding for the beef sector when new rules kicked in on removal of specified risk materials (SRMs). But even that was to help pay one-time expenses, not an ongoing tax credit. That cash, like KAP’s proposal, speaks really to the value that’s added through compliance on food quality and safety rules. But they also raise this question: who gains the most on the value added?

If we take an overly broad view – farmers’ copious paper trails benefit Canada’s global brand, and thus boost exports – then maybe the taxman does owe farmers a break beyond any already-tax-deductible expenses they incur doing the paperwork. But if instead we view heightened safety as driven by consumer demand, then farmers should seek compensation on the basis of cost recovery.

The problem, of course, is that farmers outside supply-managed sectors rarely, if ever, get their costs back by asking for them directly. But end-users do. A study last month from the George Morris Centre in Guelph suggests food manufacturers were able to pass along “decent pricing increases” in 2008, and retailers were also able to move pricing higher in some areas. (Mind you, the centre adds that it will be tough for those sectors to move food prices much higher, as commodity prices have come down off 2008’s highs.)

Farmers are thus left waiting for prices to climb back, maybe, someday. That, or maybe lobbying governments to levy some sort of value-added tax – payable by all processors to whom farmers deliver – to directly compensate farmers for such extra expenses and hours closer to the grave, where commodity prices fall short. Would the food processing and retail sectors be thrilled about that? Likely not. But should they distribute recognition and reward? Check. [email protected]

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