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Governments need a solid plan to support agriculture

Ottawa tries to address the nation’s overarching agri-food needs through something called an agricultural policy framework with the provinces and territories, a kind of roadmap to guide priorities.

The framework is renewed every five years. The next one starts in 2023. Agri-food interest groups are lining up to suggest what it should contain. The whole exercise must be frustrating for them, given how little attention and comparatively little support this vital sector gets. For inexplicable reasons, neither Ottawa nor Queen’s Park gets the message that without domestic food security, it’s game over.

Nonetheless, the agriculture sector keeps trying to get its point across, in the face of devastation…like the results of the 2021 Census of Agriculture that revealed Ontario loses almost 320 acres of farmland daily to urban sprawl and development.

But what options does the sector have other than to keep trying to make its case?

This month, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which counts 6,000 agri-businesses as members, stepped up with its suggestions.

Overall, it said governments must prioritize productivity, growth and competitiveness in the next framework – and it must pay attention to farmers and those who serve them.

“The strength and resilience of the agriculture sector are due to the commitment and performance of Canadian farmers and other agri-businesses,” it said. “Government policies can encourage their success by fostering a competitive landscape.”

The federation noted that government policies impacting agri-businesses are wide ranging, from municipal, provincial, and federal taxation to regulation, business risk management programs, market access, research and development, innovation, labour and education.

So, no wonder it’s hard to establish priorities.

But a lot of things, like farming itself, are hard, and there’s little sympathy among federation members for a lacklustre framework. Over half of them say the current five-year partnership has been ineffective in improving the competitiveness of their agri-businesses. More than one-quarter were discouraged about the future of their business heading into 2022.

Almost all of them said that the rising prices of inputs – fertilizer, fuel and machinery, among them – are having an impact on their business. Nearly three-quarters think rising prices are not a temporary issue, and that governments increasing other costs for their businesses, like the carbon tax, is a concern.

 “Farmers are facing significant costs and risk in 2022 as they work to grow food for Canadians and the export market,” says the federation. “While all levels of government must develop an effective long-term policy framework, there are many immediate challenges for agri-business members that need to be addressed.”

The list of demands is long, but includes such nuggets as recognizing the leadership and significant role farmers already play in protecting the environment, and ensuring new environmental policies do not add more cost or regulatory burden to the farm sector. New regulations must not cause any unintended consequences or be at the expense of farm productivity or Canada’s food security.

Ottawa and Queen’s Park are routinely criticized for being detached from everyday agriculture. But here they have an opportunity to listen to, and act on, very clear marching orders by those most affected. Ignoring them is not an option.

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