Canada's farm sector is buzzing, thanks to a new action plan that could make a difference in the food we see on our plates, and the price we pay for it.
The plan, called Growing Forward, is a blueprint for support for the agri-food sector. To frustrated farmers, it addresses what they have been demanding for the past two years — that is, an effective system that helps stabilize their incomes through volatile price swings. That means they shouldn't have to go to the trough and beg for the kind of billion-dollar bailouts that have become common in Canada.
This new initiative follows a meeting of federal and provincial agriculture ministers late last month in Whistler, B.C., where the ministers met for their annual summer get together. They try to reach accord on big issues, but they're not always successful. Sometimes they're squabbling. In fact, a few days prior to this meeting, Ontario's Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky issued a timely news release demanding federal negotiators take a harder line at global talks aimed at dismantling Canada's supply managed commodities.
But despite their differences, the ministers emerged with something concrete: the Growing Forward plan. It will be multi-faceted, but initially mostly concerns payments to farmers and how the farmers themselves will make contributions to an insurance-like system. For example, one of the plan's features, the AgriStability program, provides support when a farmer experiences a decline in farm income of more than 15 per cent. AgriRecovery, another program, is described as a disaster relief framework which provides a co-ordinated process for federal, provincial and territorial governments to respond rapidly when disasters strike.
This approach won't immediately please those in the agri-food sector who think the plan should emphasize innovation. Risk management, which is what these insurance and bail-out programs are popularly called, don't address innovation. But farmers have always said there's no likelihood of innovation if they're broke, and the ministers say innovation will be addressed shortly. Indeed, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada says Growing Forward will support a business environment conducive to innovation. For example, it will encourage the sector to adopt best practices that increase competitiveness and help manage business risks effectively.
Most importantly for consumers, the federal department says Growing Forward will include measures to help producers and others in the industry capitalize on new and evolving markets and interests, such as a growing consumer interest in health and wellness. It also says it recognizes the need to modernize archaic, unnecessarily complicated regulations, which may mean stifling federal crop protection regulations will be addressed.
There's still some fuzziness to the new plan. Ottawa says Growing Forward will encourage the agri-food sector "to take further actions that contribute to the priorities of increasingly health-conscious and environmentally aware Canadians." Everyone will be anxious to see what that means, because that's where consumers could really be affected — other than the undetermined effect the plan could have on the price of food, either up or down.
The ministers will meet again in September to put some meat on the plan's bones. Meanwhile, most farmers seem pleased with it, although some, particularly in Western Canada, say it's simply a rehash of tired old programs.
But those present in Whistler to chime in on the negotiations said they were satisfied with the outcome of the discussions. Turkey farmer Bob Friesen of Manitoba, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, described the proceedings as a "very open and effective exchange of ideas" between industry stakeholders and Canada's agriculture ministers.
Growing Forward looks like a positive step for farmers. If the ministers follow through, it could be a great opportunity to make new connections with consumers.