Agriculture helped make this country. For centuries, immigrants were drawn to British North America, and then to Canada, with the promise of cheap, abundant and bountiful land on which they could feed a family and build a life. But Canada has yet to complete the transition demanded by global markets and the growing needs of a hungry world. With the right mindset and more open policies, Canada can embrace, rather than shrink from, the global opportunities in food.
Canada is not open enough for agricultural business. For too long, short-term political calculations have trumped the longer-term growth of the agriculture industry. The price has been steep: Canada has dropped from third to ninth in global food exports in the past 15 years. With $8-billion in total government subsidies going to agriculture, Canadians off the land need to start asking what they are getting for that money.
It is sustaining a way of life for some, but at great expense: fiscal costs to governments, opportunities lost for all other Canadians. Today, $3-billion in subsidies goes to farms bringing in less than $250,000 in annual revenues. Longer-term objectives, such as research and trade development, receive less than 4 per cent of public spending on agriculture.
Governments need to reorient their public programs in agriculture so the ones that add the most economic value get the most funding. There will be a human cost: Some family farms will be shuttered, perhaps at a higher rate than at present. But the collective benefit, in new jobs in the agri-food industry, will be great.
The protectionist, overly political sentiment extends to our trade and investment policies. Blocking the proposed takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. may have mollified political sentiments in Saskatchewan. But the decision likely limits BHP Billiton Ltd.'s appetite for building new fertilizer mines in the province. And as long as Potash Corp. has a hand in limiting overall fertilizer supply, market opportunities are being lost in the long run.
As with subsidies and fertilizer, so too with "supply management." The system for subsidizing poultry, egg and dairy producers keeps prices higher for Canadians and limits trade opportunities: it has become a point of friction in Canada's free trade talks with the European Union,.
One area that needs more careful consideration is land acquisition. Canadian land is, by definition, tied to our sovereignty, so it is, without question, a strategic resource, one ideally owned and controlled largely by Canadians. But too much regulation of who owns agricultural land restricts the pool of capital that could allow for farm mergers that can keep them viable, and independent of the public purse. one area for improvement would be to permit Canadian public pension plans to make bigger investments in Canadian agricultural lands - keeping them Canadian, but allowing for economies of scale.
Looking to world markets, Canadian agriculture can and should get bigger and more ambitious. When it comes to local markets - what Canadians themselves eat - there are good reasons to go smaller.
A better food inspection and safety system is essential. Canadians' appetite for foreign foods is large and growing. Food traceability systems that connect the end product in stores to their origins can help head off costly recalls. There are a number of technical and cost issues to be worked out, not all foreign food could ever be tagged and tracked, and some large retailers have made great strides in tracing the products they source. But the federal government should be working on a national, or even a continental, policy that recognizes these constraints and opportunities while making sure that Canadians know the story behind the foods they eat.
At the same time, there is also rising interest in local food, especially in Canadian cities. This does not require additional public subsidies, but municipalities and regions can work to better apportion public land to meet the demand, which is especially high for allotment and community gardens. Indeed, there is no contradiction between an intensification of industrial agriculture for export and policies that help make locally grown food more available.
Food can once again become a path to prosperity, this time not just for families, but for a nation. It is time to look confidently outward, and exploit this abundant, renewable natural resource that can, with the right policies, be a source of innovation and commercial strength for Canada.
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