Politicians and farm groups spend too much time debating marketing boards, the Canadian Wheat Board and farm safety nets and not enough on what will really help producers, a southwestern Manitoba farmer told the Commons agriculture committee recently.
“Those three areas of policy suck 90 per cent of the oxygen out of the ag policy room… and have limited if any impact on my farm,” said Les Routledge, a Manitoba goat producer and rural policy pundit associated with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
What concerns farmers most are competition issues affecting both the agriculture supply and marketing, energy prices and the need for science rather than emotion-based regulations, he said. “We need to look much more at the funding of science and technology development, diffusion of innovation and technologies, human resources policy, including immigration, and the environment.”
He recommended safety nets be refocused on research and rural innovation. “Instead of preserving past production practices, safety net systems should encourage all producers to adopt practices that will compete with Brazil, Russia, Ukraine and Argentina to name a few. These are our new competitors in the global market and we have to develop business strategies and public policies to deal with that reality. We need to move beyond preserving a romantic version of the rural and agricultural economy as being the breadbasket of the world and create policies that move us into the future.”
A trained workforce is also important for farmers, he said. “There is a significant lack of social supports for new arrivals and that increases the cost of labour in our agricultural economy. It is time for our nation to recognize that rural communities can be and are growth communities. We need to invest in the social support systems that new arrivals from both within and outside of Canada require to get settled and thrive in our communities.”
Farmers’ ability to produce renewable energy also deserves more attention, he said. “Biomass crops can be produced on marginal land and reduce nutrient transport into our waterways. Biogas capture systems can eliminate odour problems, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the management of nutrients in the livestock sector.”
To give these options a chance, Canada needs to put a value on them that makes them comparable “to the full cost of bringing new Hydro, nuclear or other forms of production online. If full cost issues such as storage of spent nuclear fuel or the need to sequester carbon dioxide are considered, the costs of those options also increases compared to the past.”
He said Manitoba has estimated the cost of new hydroelectric plants and transmission lines in Manitoba at 11 cents per kilowatt hour. “Wind, biomass and biogas energy production could be competitive at those rates.”
To offset the lack of competition on the farm input side, Canada should harmonize its regulations with its trading partners, he suggested. “While we may love to complain about non-tariff barriers on our farm exports, we do not speak much about our comparable non-tariff barriers that are applied to farm input imports in Canada.”
Solving the lack of competition on the farm market side is more complex, he added. “Processors and retailers have to operate in a global competitive environment where they do not enjoy the privilege of setting their market price. Like farmers, they too must accept what the market is willing to pay for the end product.”