By Tim Kalinowski
The Alberta Beef Industry has been continually told by successive governments and parties of all political stripes that it is vitally important to the provincial economy, says Rich Smith, executive director of the Alberta Beef Producers, but when the writ is dropped that high regard does not seem to translate into budget dollars or much needed regulatory change.
“Alberta has about 40 per cent of the cows and 70 per cent of the cattlefeeding and 70 per cent of the beef processing in Canada,” states Smith. “We are the heart of the Canadian beef industry, and the province can help to ensure that all elements of the beef industry can be strong.
“It is especially important on the cattlefeeding and processing side where there are labour challenges that are hindering our ability to achieve the full potential of what we could do.
“Rural infrastructure challenges can also do that,” he adds; “so, for example, the taxation on Lethbridge County on confined feeding operations— that’s not conducive to growing an industry and having an industry take advantage of the global opportunities we have.”
Smith says while beef maybe a global industry dictated by international marketing challenges beyond its control, the provincial government of the day can play a substantial role in creating conditions on the ground which allow the industry to thrive.
“It’s no good having market access if you are not able to meet the opportunities that are provided by that access,” says Smith alluding to the rural infrastructure deficit, the taxation of confined feeding operations and municipal governments creating additional regulatory burdens where gaps exist in provincial regulations.
“We think one of main underlying causes of that Lethbridge (head) tax, for example, is currently the overall taxation of agricultural land, and specifically confined feeding operations, is not being done very well,” he states. “We think the assessment of taxation of that could be done better, and that would create a situation where counties like Lethbridge would be less inclined to go after confined feeding operations with a business tax if those operations paid a more appropriate share of municipal taxes all the time.
“That’s something which needs to be done provincially with regulations on how agricultural lands and operations are assessed.”
Smith says the province should also enforce its own regulations on confined feeding operations, over which it has proper, legal jurisdiction, and intervene in cases where municipalities overstep themselves. He gives the example of municipally imposed exclusion zones to illustrate his point.
“We worry about how municipalities are putting up exclusion zones for confined feeding operations within municipal development plans,” he explains. “That is a barrier to these operations. We think the provincial government needs to take leadership and say we have provincial regulations in terms of the siting and management of confined feeding operations, and we don’t want to see situations where municipalities are trying to undermine that authority by creating exclusion zones within their municipalities.”
Grazing leases on Crown lands is another area Smith says his members want to see strong commitments from all parties in this election cycle.
“Grazing leases on Crown land is a big beef industry issue because we use those lands for cattle production,” he states. “We would like to see a really strong commitment to maintaining grazing on Crown lands throughout the province, and making sure the people who have leases, dispositions and permits have long term tenure. We think that’s what encourages good, long-term stewardship of the land is long term tenure. If people know they are going to be on that land for a long time, there is even more incentive to take good care of it.
“Historically, our producers have had it,” he acknowledges, “but we worry there are now threats to it. Every time a new park is created we worry whether or not those long term tenure grazing leases will stay in place. It is very important to our industry, and we think it is very important to the people of Alberta because it’s a very good use and protection of those lands. It is good for conservation of it.”
On the issue of the carbon tax, Smith says the Alberta Beef Producers are not in favour of any tax burden or regulation which takes away from the industry’s competitiveness.
“The issue for our industry is we are in a globally competitive market,” he says, “and many of our competitors in the beef industry, notably in other countries with North America, don’t pay carbon taxes. So that carbon tax has created a competitive disadvantage.”
But, Smith says, the problem is not resolved simply by swapping a provincial carbon tax for a federal one if the UCP wins and follows through on its commitment to “axe the tax” only to have a more onerous one imposed by the Trudeau government afterward.
“Obviously there was some hope that some of the funds from any carbon price scheme, (federal or provincial), would recognize the benefits of the grasslands used in the cattle industry,” says Smith. “Those grasslands are sequestering carbon and provide a beneficial impact on water quality and greenhouse gas emissions as well.”
Smith hopes whichever party wins the election the winner will be committed to fostering a strong beef industry going forward.
“I think people tend to say trade is done only by the federal government, and obviously they do take the lead on it, but I think there are lots of things the Alberta government can do to support it.
“I think it is a case of creating the conditions here where the industry can grow to meet the opportunities which are presented. And then supporting the national effort on trade and market access,” he says.