Setting the table for agri-food growth

Government and industry have roles to play in order to meet aggressive sector export goals

Does Canadian agriculture need an Own the Podium strategy?

The Economic Strategy Table on Agri-Food thinks it’s an idea to examine.

Lee Moats, a Riceton, Sask., farmer who was part of the economic strategy process for agriculture, says the idea of focusing resources where they can have largest impact makes sense to reach the lofty export goals set by the Canadian government.

Why it matters: The Economic Strategy Tables were set up by Industry Canada and will have an impact on policy to reach economic goals within key economic sectors.

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Moats talked about the results of the strategy table for agri-food at the recent Grow Canada conference in Ottawa.

The grains and oilseeds farmer was part of the group of people that included mostly food processors and was chaired by Murad Al-Katib, of AGT Food and Ingredients. Moats also could rely on a producer advisory council that included Ontario farmers such as Mark Brock and Teresa Van Raay.

The sector strategy tables were created after the Barton Report in 2016 identified critical areas of the economy that should be encouraged for future growth. These included agriculture and set several recommendations for government and the sector.

The agri-food strategy table made recommendations in five areas for continued growth of the sector and also increased the export goal for the sector to $80 billion by 2025, compared to $75 billion in the Barton report. That compares to $64.6 billion in 2017.

The five areas include

1. Regulations
Moats said he heard from his fellow table members that it is harder to do business within Canada than it is to export.

“Is that really true?” asked Moats. “That’s hard to believe for the farmer from Riceton. Why when we live in the country, can’t we have free trade across the country?”

The panel recommended that regulatory processes be reformed so that regulators’ mandates include innovation and sector competitiveness as core considerations. Table members also suggested a permanent, independent panel of industry experts to advise regulators.

“It’s mostly about us,” said Moats. “We created regulations in Canada, we can fix them in Canada.”

2. Infrastructure
The table called for a 50-year national infrastructure plan that will stretch beyond individual government mandates. Infrastructure is not only roads and rail and shipping, but also internet and communications infrastructure, said Moats.

3. Market diversification
Canadians may not always be able to compete on price and labour rates, but they can compete on safety and environmental sustainability, said Moats.

This is where the Own the Podium recommendation was made. The original Own the Podium is a program of the Canadian Olympic Committee, which picks the top athletes with potential for success and funds them better, versus spreading funds over many qualifiers.

The industry needs anchor companies with scale that can export the large volumes of Canadian production around the world, said Moats.

4. Innovation
Innovation was measured by the agri-food strategy table by investment that boosts competitiveness and found that investment in agriculture is lacking. The table recommends research and development spending in agriculture be doubled by 2025. To encourage that development, measures such as accelerated capital cost allowance for machinery, equipment and digital automation tools need to be adopted. That happened in the recent federal government fall economic update. Other recommendations included the creation of open digital standards and creating a Canadian Agri-Food Innovation Centre.

5. Labour and skills
Moats said that most of the talk about labour in agriculture is at the production level, but there are significant issues at the processing and infrastructure level as well. Both labourers and skilled workers are needed. The source of more workers is outside of the country and Moats said immigration and foreign worker programs need to be revamped to give agriculture access to global resources. He said when the government announces how many jobs are being created by a new project or plant, many of those employees will be taken from another employer.

Moats says the next steps include continuing to pressure the government to adopt the recommendations of the agri-food strategy table. The industry has a key role to play, not only in interacting with government, but in “thinking big”.

“It will be the industry doing the growing, not government,” said Moats.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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