Leaders from four of Canada’s major parties debated agri-food policy ahead of the federal election
By Jackie Clark
Last night, agricultural leaders from four of the major Canadian political parties faced off in a debate of agricultural issues and policy, hosted by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
The discussion was lively between New Democratic Party critic for agriculture and agri-food Alistair MacGregor, Conservative Party of Canada MP Dave Epp, Bloc Québécois critic for agriculture and agri-food Yves Perron, and current minister of agriculture and agri-food, Marie-Claude Bibeau from the Liberal Party of Canada.
The representatives started the evening with opening statements.
“Our political party has demonstrated through it’s serious proposals, it’s collaborative approach that we are a relevant political party and that we have made real, concrete action throughout the agricultural world, of course in Quebec, but also Canada-wide,” said Perron. His vision includes agricultural sovereignty, environmental partnership, and standards reciprocity.
“You know that I’m a straight shooter and that our Liberal government has delivered concrete results. We have opened new markets for our Canadian product, invested in science and innovation, improved business risk management (BRM) programs and implemented new on-farm programs to become more climate resilient,” Bibeau said. “These actions have helped the sector reach the highest export level ever seen.”
The Conservative representative focused on the importance of supply chain relationships and balancing power.
“Canada’s Conservatives understand that Canadian agriculture is not just about farmers. The road from field to fork begins before the field with our many input suppliers, and supply chains to our farmers. The path to the plate here and abroad involves supply chains including transportation, processing, marketing, retailing, and many more and it also includes our reputation,” Epp said. “Conservatives understand markets.”
The NDP ag critic highlighted the challenges the agricultural sector faces.
“We can meet these incredible challenges that the 21st century is going to present us because our farmers are already practicing innovations, making use of the technology that we have, and what they need is a real partner in Ottawa,” MacGregor said. “One that is going to listen to their needs and respond to what they want in terms of policy.”
The formal debate began with a discussion of the next policy framework.
Overhauling BRM programs and increasing support for farmers to better reflect support that farmers in the U.S. receive should be priorities, Perron said.
Epp focused on processing investment. “Too much of our product is exported in a raw state,” he said.
The NDP framework would be “build around the theme of resiliency,” MacGregor said. “The last 18 months have really exposed a lot of cracks in the system. I agree that we don’t want an ‘Ottawa knows best’ approach, but we do want strong federal leadership.”
In open debate, Bibeau asked how much Epp planned to invest in BRM.
“Because the last time the Conservatives were there to negotiate, they cut hundreds of millions of dollars from these programs. So how can the farmers believe that you will be there to improve these programs, when we, the Liberals, have already improved them by $95 million and are on our way to do much better.”
In Epp’s rebuttal, he said that AgriRecovery and response to current challenges has been led by the provinces, not the federal government.
The debate moved to further discussion of the current drought and increasing extreme climate challenges.
The Liberals will take a proactive approach to climate resilience and continue to improve BRM programs, Bibeau said.
“We are putting in place a $200 million program to give farmers incentive to adopt better management practices” to improve resilience to climate change, she explained. “We will triple the investment in clean technology programs.”
Environmental challenges due to climate change “are now going to be a long-term trend,” MacGregor said. “If we don’t start changing the policy to seriously confront climate change, our farmers are going to continue to see these effects.”
The NDP will help farmers invest in soil health to improve climate resilience on farms.
The moderator brought up carbon pricing later in the debate.
“I think it is important, where no alternatives exist, that farms be given exceptions from carbon pricing,” MacGregor added.
The discussion then moved to threats and challenges facing food processing.
Labour and value chain relationships are key challenges, Epp said. The Conservatives aim “to bring some stability and predictability to those relationships, which will increase the comfort to invest in Canada.”
McGregor brought up the importance of diversification in the processing sector, while Perron said “we need a massive investment program to modernize facilities. In the context of labour shortage, we also need increased productivity … through technological advancement.”
The Liberal, Conservative and Bloc representatives agreed that the temporary foreign worker program needed to be improved but debated on the best approach.
All of the debate participants agreed that a grocery code of conduct is necessary to improve supply chain relationships, though Bibeau said it should start as a voluntary program, while Epp and Perron said more power was needed to ensure compliance.
The moderator asked how all leaders would protect supply-managed sectors.
“The supply management system is something all Liberals believe in,” said Bibeau. The party plans to not cede any more market access in future trade agreements.
“The Conservative’s track record on defending supply management is clear,” Epp said.
“I think we have to remind our audience that it was under the previous conservative government and then finished by the Liberals that the trade deals were signed on the dotted line,” MacGregor added.
All of the debaters agreed that the Canada Grain Act required immediate modernization, but when asked if they would support further legislation, including criminal charges, to deter trespassing, all leaders said yes except Bibeau.
“Trespassing on farms is already illegal,” she explained. “Enforcement is the responsibility of the police.”
Following up on biosecurity breaches is the responsibility of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, she added.
“Ms. Bibeau has raised an important jurisdictional issue which isn’t incorrect, but in practice, there is trespassing that is occurring,” Perron said. “We need to protect our farmers.”
All debaters also said that they supported the intent behind Bill C-208, which aims to level the taxation playing field for farmers transitioning their farm to their children.
Epp was surprised that Bibeau said yes, given that the Liberal party had voted against the bill.
The Liberals support improving fairness in the intergenerational transfer of farms, Bibeau explained.
“Unfortunately, the way the legislation was put forward was incomplete, that’s why we didn’t support it. The Bill, however, has been enacted today and that is a good thing,” she said.
All debaters also agreed that Canada should be more assertive in pursuing non-tariff barriers to trade through international dispute and retaliatory measures.
In “our trade dispute with China, at the stroke of a pen, they blocked 40 per cent of our canola export because of perceived phytosanitary concerns. They have yet to produce a shred of evidence,” MacGregor said. “We need to have a rules based order when, if you are going to make these kind of claims, you have to back them up with evidence and not just block trade.”
Those situations must be handled on a case-by-case basis, said Perron.
To become a leader in agri-food, Canada “needs to focus our efforts as a government on the regulatory actions, on the commercialization of what our research and innovative community does,” Epps said.
The NDP and Bloc representatives also spoke to the need for capital investments in research and development.
“After almost ten years of the Conservatives with $400 million cut in research, we were back investing in research, in science, we have reopened research sentence, we have re-hired almost 75 scientists, and I’m particularly proud of our Living Labs initiative,” Bibeau said. We are “bringing our scientists in the field with our farmers.”
In addressing the last debate question about investment in rural infrastructure, all representatives agreed on the importance of reliable broadband to modern funding.
The full debate can be watched here.
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