All four of the major federal parties faced off in the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Leaders Debate on Sept. 24 in Ottawa.
While there were no knockout punches, it became apparent early on that there were stark divisions among the parties in their perspectives and approaches to Canadian agricultural policy.
Current Ag Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau represented the Liberal Party in the debate. She emphasized her government’s commitment these past four years, backed up by hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and spending, to sustainable food, strategic investment in the agri-food sector, market diversification and ensuring the ongoing integrity of the supply management system.
“The world is looking for Canadian products,” she said. “We are known for very high quality products and a very robust inspection system. The world wants, and the world needs, our products. We are working with processors and producers to export and diversify.”
Conservative Party Ag Critic Luc Berthold took aim at the Liberals and other parties for proposing a heavy-handed policy approach toward the agriculture industry instead of embracing and valuing the industry for what it is: One of the economic superstars of the Canadian economy.
Berthold promised, if elected, his party would make agriculture central to its economic prosperity plans for the country, and would vigourously defend its interests both abroad and at home.
“Over the past four years, there have been no new bills introduced by Liberal government to improve the plight of farmers and processors in Canada,” he stated. “Yes, there have been a number of changes, but all of those changes have led to unexpected damage— for example, tax fraud in the dairy sector, fiascos at the international level, and what’s happened in Italy, India, Europe and China. And, of course, the Food Guide.”
NDP Ag Critic Alistair MacGregor said his party was keen to work with, and invest in, the agriculture industry to help it adapt to climate change concerns, increase global trade, foster greater self-reliance in the Canadian domestic marketplace and to help create local food hubs.
He touted the role technology could play in these advances, and farmers’ and food-processors’ willingness to embrace new innovations to better their industry.
“There is a lot of Canadian know-how,” he said. “Farmers are really pushing the envelope as are our researchers in universities. We just need the government to be ready to extend that helping hand at the opportune moment.”
Green Party Ag Critic Kate Storey reminded viewers that of the leaders present at the debate she was the only one on the stage who is actually an organic farmer. But in her comments immediately afterward, she stated bluntly the Green Party would insist on major changes in industry practices to meet Canada’s climate change commitments, with policies focused on regenerative agriculture, smaller family farms and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
“Agriculture must reduce our emissions by half in the next 10 years,” she said. “We can do this. Agriculture can recognize the priorities of the future. Farmers can do it, but agri-businesses and politicians are continuing on with policies as usual. They are missing the opportunity to get Canada ahead of the global shift and protect agriculture for Canadians.”
Keeping with this theme, some of more contentious debates of the night centred around climate change, with Storey often pushing the tempo. For instance, Storey said the Green Party, if elected, would essentially mandate cattle herd-size reductions in Canada, alongside other emissions and chemical input reductions, to reduce GHG in the agriculture sector and bring less harm to the environment.
“We can’t ignore emissions on our farms and on our exports,” Storey said. “So the Green Party will look at regenerative agriculture which reduces emissions and reduces the need for pesticides and fertilizer by up to two-thirds through cover crops and green manures and all that.
“With livestock, we are looking at a reduced national cattle herd that would reduce the amount of methane and raise farm-gate prices as well. We will tie agricultural support to regenerative techniques so the exports (focus) doesn’t continue to lead Canada around by the nose.”
MacGregor said while he agreed more could be done to reduce GHG emissions in the ag sector, he insisted the NDP would work in partnership with the industry to get it done, instead of dictating to it what must be done.
“We cannot ignore the elephant in the room, and that is climate change,” he said. “The question is how do we remain competitive? I hear from the Liberals and Conservatives the never-ending debate over the carbon tax. The Conservatives argue that makes our farmers less (competitive), and Liberals say there is a way to cycle it back into the economy.
“I do support a price on carbon, and I think in order for our farms to remain competitive special attention has to be paid to the amazing work they can do in fighting climate change through carbon sequestration in soil.
“I think as consumers around the world are really tuning into the issue of climate change, and I think the ones who will stand out are the ones that have an amazing track record of using amazing farming techniques to produce the most sustainable type of food imaginable.”
Berthold said the Conservative Party would get rid of the federal carbon tax, and would focus on investment in green technologies to help farmers address the issue of climate change while the industry continues to grow.
“To be competitive is not through a carbon tax,” he stated. “We are going to lag behind countries that do not have a carbon tax. We have done a lot to respect the environment. Our producers have done this. We need promote greener approaches rather than having our farmers being subjected to these draconian measures, which will make us less competitive and leave us selling fewer products.”
Bibeau said the federal carbon tax was doing what it was intended to do, and her government, if re-elected, would continue to advance policy which provides research and incentives for the ag sector to continue to lower its carbon footprint and emissions, while at the same time maintaining the viability and prosperity of the industry as a whole.
“We want to recognize farmers are very good stewards of their land,” she said. “They have lived on their land for generations, and they want it safe and good, and to prosper for their kids and grandkids as well. “They depend, as we all do, on clean soil, air and water. The agricultural sectors are leaders in adopting sustainable, production practices like no-till. It is important to recognize their good work, and this is something I want to do through our food policies.”
On the issue of trade impediments and tariffs, particularly in reference to China, the opposition critics from all three parties spent a lot of time casting blame in the Liberal Party’s general direction. None moreso than the Conservative Party’s Berthold.
“We have been just sitting on our hands,” he said taking aim at Bibeau. “Can you tell me why the Liberals have sat on their hands and done nothing in the face of the most serious crisis in Canadian agricultural history? That is the crisis with canola and China.
“They waited for someone to take a call. They waited for someone to blame. They waited while producers suffered. They waited for an election to be called. This is not putting farmers in priority.”
Bibeau defended the government’s response, and suggested Berthold’s criticisms and statements on the China issue were merely political bluster.
“The Chinese crisis is highly complicated,” she said, “and clearly Mr. Berthold doesn’t appreciate the complexity of this issue.
“Right from the start we stood shoulder to shoulder with our producers and exporters, and this is why we formed a working group (on this issue). We have improved the advance payment program as they asked for. We have increased the capacity of our producers to take loans up to $1 million. And also for canola producers; they can have interest free loans up to $500,000. We have extended the AgriStability program. We have also increased our efforts to diversify our markets.”
Storey stated the Liberals had not done enough to stand up for farmers on the China issue, and besides that, she said, the government’s whole approach was wrong-headed in any event. They should be creating policies, she stated, to reduce Canada’s dependence on foreign trade.
“China is just grandstanding and playing politics,” she said. “We can’t let them push us around. If we are going to trade with a giant, we have to be prepared. We (the Green Party) want to replace a third of the food we import with Made in Canada products. Canada imports food worth $45 billion. “If we replace a third, that would add $15 billion a year to agriculture. The Green Party would create a buy Canadian program, improve food labels and food testing; so people who buy Canadian know what they are getting.”
MacGregor said his party would advocate for an international framework on phyto-sanitary standards to prevent such non-tariff trade barriers from being used as bully-stick by China and other major economic powers to punish nations in the future.
“We have to start letting the Chinese authorities know there are consequences to continuing this dispute without bringing the necessary evidence that something was wrong in the first place,” he said. “It also points to a larger problem; that the countries of the world need to establish some kind of standard all will agree to whenever these phyto-sanitary complaints are brought to bear.”
The issue which brought the most fireworks on the night was on the topic of how the parties would address labour shortages in the agriculture sector.
Storey used the opportunity to take aim at the Temporary Foreign Workers program.
“The Temporary Foreign Workers program exploits desperate people who have no human rights,” she said. “That cheap labour undercuts the fabric of family farms who are still doing their own labour, or are at least trying to pay fair wages.
“The Greens will eliminate the Temporary Foreign Workers low-wage program, which is nothing more than modern-day slavery.”
This comment drew an outraged response from Berthold.
“What a lack of respect for our producers,” he said in stuttering disbelief. “Do you think really they (farmers) are treating their workers as slaves? This is unacceptable (language). People are treating their workers really good now, and this is just not true.
“What are you even here for? You have attacked directly the producers, and this is unacceptable.”
Bibeau also expressed her shock that Storey and her party would seek to mischaracterize producers, and the Canadian ag industry as a whole, so egregiously.
“I am shocked to hear you say that,” she said. “On several occasions this evening you have attacked farmers. It is shocking that you are putting all producers in the same basket, saying they are poor environmental stewards and poor stewards of the labour market. And now you are saying they are treating immigrant workers as slaves. It’s simply shocking.”
MacGregor agreed such misinformed statements are dangerous and unfair to farmers.
“No one is arguing against strong labour and safety standards,” he said, “but we have to remember a lot of these workers have decades-long relationships with producers, and they are, in fact, earning more in a day than they would earn in a week back at home.”