Having friends in high places

March 10, 2014
Written by
If food production efficiency was an Olympic sport, Canada would be a perennial shoo-in for the podium.

We are very good at growing food at remarkably low prices.

But is this sustainable over the long haul? Does our food industry enjoy the same level of government support most other industries (say, for example, the auto sector) take for granted? And does increasing legislation and regulation pose a threat to the viability of the farm community?

The good news is that we’re currently on the right track.

Food Freedom Day is calculated each year by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. It is the date when the average Canadian has earned enough income to pay their annual grocery bill. This year it fell on Feb. 7, a full one week earlier than 2013 (Feb. 14 that year). While input costs continue to rise, farmers and food producers are keeping prices in check.

In a 2012 USDA study, Canada was eclipsed only by the U.S. and Britain in terms of low household expenditures directed to food. “We’re pretty lucky to live in a country with such affordable food, while enjoying some of the highest production, environmental and food safety standards,” notes Mark Wales, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

On the plus side of government involvement, the “buy local” initiatives across Canada have a positive effect. A recent Farm Credit Canada survey found that 95 per cent of shoppers agreed that buying locally grown food is their preference.

The bad news, however, is that about 80 per cent of respondents to this year’s Greenhouse Canada Grower Survey said they were “somewhat” or “very” concerned with government taxation/regulation” levels. That was about the same level of apprehension we noted in the 2013 and 2012 surveys. Politicians and government ministries/agencies must be sensitive to the impact they have over agriculture. Even the smallest of changes could have a significant ripple effect. For example, the recent decision in Ontario to raise the minimum wage (to $11 from $10.25 per hour) will be felt by growers throughout the province.

Ensuring government involvement remains positive is one of the initiatives tackled in the National Food Strategy developed by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA). “In spite of the food sector’s contribution to a healthy economy,” notes the study, “the bottom line of many producers and processors of food remains low. Farm incomes have suffered a roller coaster ride that includes nominal or negative farm income.”

Governments have a clear role in ensuring the viability of the sector. They need to increase, not simply maintain, their level of research funding if we are to continue to enjoy inexpensive food produced with increased efficiency. They need to increase, not simply maintain, their “buy local” programs if we are to grow into new markets and opportunities.

The industry, as well, needs to have friends in high places. Our grower groups need to increase, not simply maintain, efforts to work more closely with government.

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