The new "Growing Forward" provincial-federal program, created to give farmers and food processors more ways to advance the sector, is well poised to live up to its name.
At $1.3 billion over five years — that's $300 million more than the previous program — it's the single biggest joint initiative for the agri-food sector. And to Ottawa's credit, it's centred on an essential factor for the success of individual provinces and territories: namely, flexibility.
That's certainly true in Ontario. Before Leona Dombrowsky, minister for agriculture, food and rural affairs, met with her counterparts in Quebec City at the end of June for their annual federal, provincial and territorial ministers' meeting, she took the pulse of Ontario agri-food stakeholders on this matter. She's a great believer in consensus, and she heard repeatedly the province needed to be able to fashion its own priorities around national prerogatives.
Dombrowsky took that message to Quebec City, and found support around the rest of the ministerial table. The agricultural sector in Canada is extremely diverse. Nationwide, the sector has evolved in very different ways, depending on the commodities produced in various provinces and territories and the way the sector ushered in new programs to support those commodities.
Some have specific priorities. Some, such as Ontario, owing primarily to their size, are simply more advanced than others, and won't benefit from a national one-size-fits-all program.
Ottawa agreed. Its main interest was having the provinces and territories buy into a common vision for what it calls "a profitable and innovative agriculture, agri-food and agri-based products industry that seizes opportunities in responding to market demands, and contributes to the health and well-being of Canadians." It decided the details of how that vision would be applied at the provincial or territorial level could be worked out with those it was meant to help.
That sealed the deal. The provinces and territories needed that proviso. Ottawa understood.
And as result, the country's agri-food sector is stronger. Now, Ottawa can stand before international trading partners with confidence and say all parts of Canada's agri-food industry are like-minded on matters such as food safety and quality. It's not a stretch to believe a sector that looks after the health and well-being of its own people can be counted on to commit the same care to the food it sells abroad. That's the kind of assurance the partners of a major exporting nation like ours needs to hear.
In Ontario, for example, Dombrowsky says to expect a great deal of emphasis on environmental stewardship, food safety and on-farm programs, the latter of which are intended to help farmers capitalize on new opportunities such as small-scale biofuel development and alternative feedstocks. Science and innovation, among Dombrowsky's favourite themes, continue to be at the core of the programs. They reflect Ontarians' priorities for a healthy environment and safe food.
The provinces and territories are contributing significantly to the Growing Forward program. For example, Ontario's agri-food sector will be eligible for about $300 million of the total, of which $120 million will come from the province.
The harmonious introduction of this program is encouraging. In Quebec City, there seemed to be genuine solidarity between all participants. Likely, the unusually buoyant farm economy had a lot to do with it, particularly in Western Canada where some provinces have the resource-generated revenue to introduce whatever programs they want anyway. Surely Ottawa saw the wisdom in being part of their strategy, and having them involved in the overall plan, rather than watching them do their own thing from afar.
There's a lot at stake. A food sector can be deflated in a day, as seen in the U.S. lately by the salmonella scare in tomatoes, and before that the contaminated spinach and lettuce scare that rocked its fruit and vegetable sector.
We haven't been immune to food woes here. But Growing Forward holds the potential of making our food system better than ever.