Comment: The pandemic has shown governments can make decisions quickly

Too often, bureaucratic entropy takes over and that makes us less competitive in the global marketplace

The timely approvals of vaccines to protect against COVID-19 is proof that agility can exist in bureaucratic processes. Maybe it’s time to apply a similar decision-making approach to other areas of importance.

One of the lessons of the pandemic and response to it by governments and regulatory agencies is that regulatory agility is possible.

COVID-19 vaccines have been approved with record speed, and from what I can find, the government says that the same vigour of process has also been applied. The only point missing is long-term studies of vaccine efficacy.

Vaccine approvals usually take a long time, along with most approvals needed in the health and technology fields.

It’s all part of the need to balance appropriate levels of oversight, but still allow the kind of innovation and economic development necessary for Canadian business to compete.

We’ve gone too far towards bureaucratic entropy in the last while and that needs to change. It’s like no one wants to make the difficult decisions.

However, there have been examples during the pandemic that show governments can make changes quickly when needed. These include changes to interprovincial meat trade and the suspension and change to labelling requirements when certain processors were making the quick and challenging transition from processing for the food-service sector to supply most of their product through supermarkets.

Agriculture and agri-food has been identified as one of the leading economic categories that should help lead the country out of the pandemic-induced recession and regulatory agility will be needed to make that happen.

There are leaders in agriculture talking about the potential for more regulatory agility. Murad Al-Katib, who has helped drive the global trade of Canadian pulses through his company AGT Foods has talked about the need for regulatory agility to drive the country’s agriculture innovation and future competitiveness.

Agriculture was identified as one of four pillars of the recovery by the federal government’s Industry Strategy Council. The council is composed of the chairs of nine “economic strategy tables” set up by the federal government (with Al-Katib being the chair of the agri-food table).

In its report, the council says that “Canada’s regulatory system contributes to the nation’s overall competitiveness” but at the same time “internal regulatory barriers hinder innovation and competitiveness” when it comes to the growth of agriculture and agri-food businesses.

“Since the emergence of COVID-19, the Canadian government has shown agility in regulatory processes within the agri-food sector, including providing temporary exemptions for the interprovincial movement of meat and poultry products and providing flexibility on certain labelling requirements for food-service products that do not have an impact on food safety. Our vision is that the government continues to prioritize regulatory flexibility over the long term,” the report said.

There are several areas where regulatory agility is necessary in Canada, including in the areas of technology approval and trade.

Take gene editing for example.

The United States and Australia have both said that gene-edited crops will not be regulated where the same result could conceivably be attained using conventional breeding. About a year after the U.S. made its determination, we don’t know what Canada is going to do yet. Europe has decided that gene-edited crops should be treated similarly to genetically modified crops. Meanwhile, Canada plans to start consultations on the issue in March.

It’s another example of Canada’s slow approval process for new technology.

The government is currently considering how plant breeding fits into its novel foods regulations.

Canada’s regulations are more precautionary in nature than the Australian and American examples and it’s taken a year longer to get there.

There will be many pulls on government money over the next couple of years as choices have to be made between programs and paying down the massive debt that has been incurred to fight the pandemic’s effects on the economy.

Maintaining regulatory agility will require people to make prioritized and focused decisions.

In other areas, like internal trade, decisions should be able to be made quickly, and ways around provincial politics need to be found.

Making the argument that regulatory efficiency is a priority will be tough, but critical.

This article was originally published as an editorial at Farmtario.

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