Quiet rollout of Sustainable Ag Strategy report sends a message

(Janet Vickers, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If a report is quietly published on a government website on the Friday before the New Year’s weekend and no one is told about it, is anyone supposed to read it or respond to it?

Because that’s what happened with the federal government’s “What We Heard” report after holding consultations a year ago on its plan for a Sustainable Ag Strategy (SAS).

The unannounced and delayed publishing of the report on Dec. 29 fits the narrative that the government is struggling to find a path forward for the strategy, which was supposed to “provide a coordinated approach to improving the agriculture sector’s environmental performance and sustainability.”

The government has already missed its original late-2023 deadline for rolling out the final strategy, and it appears it won’t be released before a revised February 2024 deadline, as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada now says it’s only expected to be published sometime in 2024.

An advisory group co-chaired by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, with a long list of members including farm groups and environmental organizations, was established in December 2022 to help the government develop the strategy. They met frequently throughout 2023, but multiple sources say the nearly two dozen stakeholders have been unable to reach an agreement on several key issues, such as whether a commitment to be net-zero by 2050 applies to Canada as a whole or to the agriculture sector specifically.

The controversial 30 per cent nitrogen fertilizer emissions reduction target announced in late 2020 was rolled into the Sustainable Ag Strategy process, but there’s no specific reference to it in the report published Dec. 29. The words “nitrogen” and “fertilizer” don’t even appear – another sign of a walk-back or at least a major lack of consensus and support for the direction the government was headed.

The report itself lives up to its “What We Heard” name, covering many of the key messages that farmers and farm groups have been sharing for years, including the importance of applying an economic lens to environmental policies at the farm level, regional differences across the country, the need to recognize early adopters, and the importance of solid data for making decisions.

Some people in agriculture concerned about new government restrictions and red tape may breath a sigh of relief, but the quiet release during the holidays can also be viewed as a missed opportunity.

“The Sustainable Ag Strategy should be a real opportunity for Canadian agriculture to improve its competitive advantage, to build a brand, to improve the profitability and prosperity of Canadian farmers, but it says to me when government’s putting it out at that time, that it’s worried it’s not doing that and it’s missing the mark,” noted Tyler McCann of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI), discussing the future of the strategy on the Jan. 12 Friday Issues Panel on RealAg Radio.

The change in federal agriculture minister last August is another factor to consider when looking at what’s next for the whole green agriculture plan. It’s quite possible Lawrence MacAulay isn’t as gung-ho about the strategy as his predecessor and the strategy’s original proponent, Marie-Claude Bibeau.

MacAulay told us back in fall that he hopes stakeholder groups don’t back away from the SAS table over not seeing eye-to-eye on what it should include, but admitted it could “probably” happen.

Taking a step back, when you consider the broader political and economic context facing the Liberal government, they may also have more urgent political priorities, with polls raising the prospect of their defeat within the next two years. MacAulay and other decision-makers in the government may choose to invest political capital elsewhere, rather than forging ahead with a strategy for agriculture that some stakeholders don’t support.

If it is something the government is still excited about and planning to prioritize, maybe they should tell someone.

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