The agriculture sector has had unusually good intergovernmental relations in the past, but new challenges will test them.
Since the time of Confederation, agriculture has been a shared federal-provincial jurisdiction. In the world of food production, the two levels of government (together with municipalities in certain areas) have made Canada a global powerhouse with a good reputation for safety and quality, access to natural resources, a strong research and development system, and skills in local and international marketing.
But as governments consider the next multi-year agricultural policy framework, challenges such as consumers’ mistrust of “big food,” a failure to protect its natural capital (water, soil), and fragmentation within the sector must be considered.
Can governments across Canada work collectively to create the right environment for the sector to succeed?
The short answer is yes. The federal-provincial-territorial (FPT) agricultural policy table is well set. Government support for agriculture has evolved steadily, from piecemeal programs driven by isolated events such as war, drought or disease, to multi-year agreements between the two levels of government to mitigate risk and drive innovation. The next policy framework, should it be adopted, will mark almost 30 years of joint FTP programming.
Beyond the agricultural policy framework, there is also the development of a national food policy, as laid out in the minister’s mandate letter. At least 12 federal departments have an interest in the project, along with all the provinces and territories.
Regulations under the Safe Food for Canadians Act are also currently up for consultation. When in place, they could significantly transform the regulations around food safety.
Still, there is more to be done. Here are some areas that will test the bonds of the intergovernmental relationship.
The need for continued discipline in the area of risk management programs (farm subsidies) cannot be understated. Not long ago FPT governments were competing with each other for support, driven by stakeholder pressure. This resulted in a series of ad hoc payments, nationally and provincially, to respond to events such as flooding, plant closures and disease. While the money did provide short term relief, it could sometimes impede change and innovation and conceal market signals. It also frustrated various treasuries, as agriculture ministers repeatedly returned for additional dollars. This created a sense that Canadian agriculture was subsidized more heavily than other jurisdictions and thus not globally competitive.
Fiscal problems, international trade agreements and sheer exhaustion have driven a change in approach. In recent years FPT collaboration has been exceptionally strong. Risk management programs have followed a mutually agreed upon policy framework with a minimal number of unilateral programs. However, it’s important to note that commodity prices have generally been high. Those prices are falling, and it will be interesting to see whether the FPT discipline persists if farm incomes start to fall and regional stakeholders look to governments to make up the loss.
The agri-food system looks very different compared with 20 years ago, and its research capacity must also change with it. Much is already changing — researchers are retiring, infrastructure is aging and, of course, technology is advancing rapidly. Better alignment of federal and provincial investments in people, technology and research stations across the country could create an even stronger R&D system and accelerate the transformation of the sector.
A shared responsibility means more complexity. Because of politics and regional differences, perspectives cannot be completely aligned, even though there might be consensus on a national vision. Food and agriculture stakeholders are not different from others in their wish for consistency. They worry about provincial differences in areas such as food inspection, packaging and labelling requirements, and climate change initiatives. Such discrepancies create extra costs and disincentives for businesses trying to expand beyond their local borders. International trade missions undertaken by individual provinces (and cities) can blur the Canadian brand overseas. And recent provincial decisions around things like reviewing farmland ownership and access to pesticides can affect investment decisions.
There are voices with an interest in food security who feel there is even a larger problem. They argue that while Canada might have a strong agricultural policy, it lacks a food policy, and that agricultural ministries spend too much time thinking about the economic contribution of agriculture and not enough about issues such as food security, labour practices and biodiversity.
One of the greatest challenges agricultural ministers face is that policy responses to many of the key issues affecting the sector are driven by other ministries (e.g., infrastructure, environment, labour). Championing food and agricultural sector issues in an urbanized country like Canada is challenging. “Working horizontally” is a term well known to most policy professionals in the public service today; however, reporting and reward systems are still vertical, and the public mandate letters create clear priorities within individual ministries. All levels of government are trying hard to create “whole-of-government” solutions, but the task is not easy.
And yet the need for collaboration and co-creation has never been stronger. According to the Advisory Council on Economic Growth, Canada ranks 5th in global agricultural exports and 11th in agri-food exports. To be able to move to 2nd place in agricultural exports and 5th in agri-food exports, an additional US$30 billion in exports or 2 percent of GDP would be needed. The federal government cannot do this alone. All areas of government — from marketing frameworks, to food safety regulations and land use decisions — have a role to play.
This article is part of the Canadian Agriculture at the Cutting Edge special feature.
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