Agriculture continues to be asked to do more, with less

Canada’s agriculture industry has had its share of trials over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interrupted value chains, spilled milk, and empty grocery shelves were thankfully a short-lived experience for Canadians and the agriculture sector.

In fact, agriculture and food, as industries, have continued to be economic drivers even during the last 15 months of uncertainty. Looking back further, the promise of agriculture goods, processing, and exports has been more widely discussed at a national policy level than perhaps we’ve ever seen before, à la Barton Report.

This isn’t by accident, of course. Ample natural resources, good soil, savvy farmers, and a vibrant agri-business industry make Canadian agriculture the powerhouse it is today. Good policy should support what already holds so much potential.

Enter the consultations on the next agriculture policy framework (APF).

In broad terms, the APF functions as both encourager and investment engine, but also as a safety net or risk backstop. It’s a tall order for one framework to fulfill all these roles and account for regional differences and priorities, but anything is possible with the right policy, strong leadership, and deep pockets.

That last point is the one that several policy and producer groups are grappling with as these consultations begin in earnest.

Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, says that it’s unlikely we see a major restructuring of the APF, set to roll in the spring of 2023.

Instead, now is the time to refine and evolve the priorities to reflect what’s going on today and what will happen in the tomorrow, for the industry. What worries Robinson is the continuing trend of the policy framework being required to do more with less.

It’s true that the program hasn’t seen any new money in the last round, except for removal of reference margin limit for 2021.

“When you consider the amount of growth in the industry, [that number] hasn’t even kept up with inflation,” Robinson says.

What’s more, we continue to see environmental policy and preservation and improvement of public good further pulled under the same “agriculture” umbrella, but without a corresponding increase and budget and perhaps respect for all that ends up being “downloaded on producers,” as Robinson puts it.

“We definitely need to see the attitude change in regard to investment and priming the pump and financial backstop and improve diversity and improve our resilience, ” she says.

Todd Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, agrees. His province is one that is generating big numbers for the local economy, especially as grain prices climb. That’s a big benefit for the sector, for sure, but that growth brings with it increased risk.

That increased risk, and escalating costs through government mandated carbon initiatives, means that the sector requires a predictable, stable suite of business risk management programs.

If we had that in the current framework, Lewis says, producer uptake of the programs would be much higher. Instead, they vote with their feet, and enrolment shows it.

As for the cost share aspect of the framework, Lewis understands that a larger funding envelop would mean more money required from the provinces, but that they benefit from the growth, too.

Hear more from Todd Lewis in conversation with Lyndsey Smith here:

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