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A worker seals one of the totes on the floor that weigh in excess of 1000kg's of lentils that are waiting to be shipped at the Wigmore Farms on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010 near Regina, Sask. The farm is approx. 10 kilometres west of Regina. (Troy Fleece for The Globe and Mail/Troy Fleece for The Globe and Mail)
A worker seals one of the totes on the floor that weigh in excess of 1000kg's of lentils that are waiting to be shipped at the Wigmore Farms on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010 near Regina, Sask. The farm is approx. 10 kilometres west of Regina. (Troy Fleece for The Globe and Mail/Troy Fleece for The Globe and Mail)

Canada needs policy overhaul to keep up with global food markets Add to ...

Canada has lost its status as a food-producing superpower and needs a drastic overhaul of its agricultural policy if it hopes to compete in world markets and feed more of its own people.

The country, hobbled by out-of-date policies and an ongoing battle for scarce government dollars, has dropped from third-largest global exporter of food to number seven at a time when we can least afford it: Climate change and population growth are putting enormous pressure on the food system, while diet-related health-care costs are weighing on the national economy.

Those conclusions were laid out Monday by the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. The institute issued a challenge to food-system stakeholders shaping future agriculture policy, demanding they create a new framework to enable Canada to double its agri-food exports to $75-billion and produce 75 per cent of its own food by 2025.

The report argues that the country's climate, natural resource base and skilled work force position it to capitalize on the opportunities that volatile global markets present. But the country will need enlightened policies.

"If Canada does not change the way we look at agri-food development, we will be losers for a long, long time," said Gaëtan Lussier, a former federal and provincial deputy agriculture minister and industry executive who is founding chair of the institute. "We're expecting a wakeup call."

Anatomy of the Fall

Using federal data as its evidence base, the report, called Canada's Agri-Food Destination, says Canada has been surpassed by Brazil and nearly by China and Argentina in the global food market. Imports have increased more than 50 per cent at a time when Canada should be ramping up to pump out more product; research in agriculture has steadily declined.

The problems start on the farm. Incomes have stagnated over the past two decades, debt levels are soaring and yet direct government payments to farmers have tripled over the past 20 years. Canada spends more than $8-billion on agriculture each year; most of that subsidizes struggling operations rather than fund research and development.

"Canadian farming profitability and our ability to serve the world is falling by the wayside," Mr. Lussier said.

Food processors have also struggled, squeezed by demanding retailers who, in turn, have been lured by higher margins they can reap by selling cheaper imported food. Consumers, in turn, have grown used to spending only a fraction of their income on food and now demand cheap prices - at any cost.

Reasons to sit up at the table

Abundant sources of cheap food are linked to a litany of health and environmental problems, from obesity, cancer and diabetes to the degradation of natural resources and contributions to global greenhouse-gas emissions. Health-care budgets are chronically on the rise. Climate change is already impacting food prices, which this month reached historic highs as charted by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. The world, as we are repeatedly told, is projected to have nine billion mouths to feed by 2050.

"Canada potentially has a great role to play in world food production," said Garnet Etsell, an Abbotsford, B.C. turkey farmer and executive member of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, which is in the midst of developing its own national food strategy. "From just a business perspective, Canadians should care about this."

They should also be mindful of an unnecessary reliance on cheap imports. "As we begin to rely more on imports … there comes a point where a country that cannot support itself from a food perspective loses some of its sovereignty," he said.

Growing forward

The report advocates a "systems-based" approach to agriculture policy, one that consistently brings diverse stakeholders - from producers and processors to policy makers - to the table. Central to that process would be a new Cabinet Committee on Food, which the authors say would harmonize policies on environment, food and health (a similar structure exists in the United Kingdom) which are often at odds.

The regulatory system would be overhauled to promote sustainability, foster innovation and collaboration among Canadian producers. A new regulatory scorecard would be implemented to catch hiccups in the system, which is rife with disconnects. A common industry complaint is that when one arm of government invests funds for new product research, the innovation is later smothered by a regulatory arm unequipped to handle novel applications. Funding to boost crop production is not often matched with a corresponding effort to open export markets.

"We have to have access to markets," said Gordon Bacon, CEO of Pulse Canada, the industry group representing farmers from Canada's growing, multibillion-dollar bean, lentil and chickpea industry. The sector is an export success story despite Canada's global decline. "You very quickly get to the point where you'll forget about even trying to sell if you're dealing with tariff disadvantages," he said. "The federal government has to help level the playing field."

Already, the paper has gotten some response.

"We will take a look at this report and if there are ways to improve the bottom line for Canadian producers and processors we will certainly look at them," Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a statement. "We agree that increasing trade will benefit Canadian farmers and the economy as a whole."

The country's agriculture ministers are scheduled to meet later this year to sketch out a new national, five-year strategy.

An alternative view

There is a split among food policy theorists between those who believe in reforming the current industrial agro-economic system and those who advocate for a more radical shift to a food system based on sustainability and environmental balance.

Rod MacRae, a food policy expert at York University, is among the latter. He praised the spirit of the report - one of several non-government food strategy efforts under way across Canada - but questioned its focus on expanding into global markets.

"Some regional economic theorists are saying you feed the family and trade the leftovers - you focus on minimizing your need to import, really optimizing what you can produce domestically and then you trade your excess," he said. "That's what will really give you both environmental and economic bang for the buck."

Follow on Twitter: @jessleeder

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