Farmers face a growing number of challenges. The threat of drought and crop failure seem to be with us every year. Add to this protectionist policies that make it harder for Canadian farmers to trade, uncertain markets caused by political instability (e.g., war in Ukraine), and the potential for disease outbreaks that threaten productivity. It is not overly surprising that politicians and policy makers often look at agriculture as a series of problems that need to be solved. In fact, agriculture is not a policy problem child, but has become our rich uncle that we need to cultivate.
There was a time, beginning in the 1970s and through the 1990s, when the outlook for agriculture was bleak. Subsidy wars between Europe and the U.S. had decimated international prices. Protectionist tariff barriers kept Canadian products out of prime markets. Interest rates in the high teens drove producers into bankruptcy. The question in rural Canada at the time was “why would my kids want to farm?” Thankfully, times have considerably changed.
Canada has negotiated more trade agreements than any other developed country. We are connected to Asia through the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). We are connected to North America through the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA), and to Europe through the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). Canada has free trade agreements with over 40 countries, and agriculture is featured prominently in each of them. Are these agreements perfect? Far from it; we have a lot of work to do to make them better. However, each of these agreements has opened the door to agricultural exports and helped make agriculture a driver of the Canadian economy.
Manitoba’s pork sector provides an example of how agriculture can transform the economy and communities. Because of investments in hog production and processing, rural areas like Steinbach, Roblin, Killarney, and Notre Dame de Lourdes are being revitalized. Over 22,000 jobs in Manitoba are tied to hog production. These job numbers include thousands of people working in value-added processing in Brandon, Winkler, Neepawa, and Winnipeg. Jobs and investments help communities deliver new amenities like hospitals, childcare facilities, and recreation centres. The industry adds $2.3 billion to the province’s GDP every year. Canola, oats, peas, cereal crops, beef, potatoes, and many more commodities add to agriculture’s contribution to our province.
Agriculture can continue to drive our growth and development. But we need the right policies, legislation, and regulations. We can’t forget that the difficult times of 30 and 40 years ago were caused by detrimental domestic and international policies.
What do we mean by good policies? Manitoba is at the beginning of an election campaign, and it is prime time to ask this question. First, we need our governments, both provincial and federal, to rigorously protect our ability to trade. We are seeing protectionism rise again, after 30 plus years of working to liberalize trade. Examples include non-science based regulatory hurdles that are blocking Canadian red meat producers from accessing the European market (despite CETA), proposed U.S. labelling regulations that will discriminate against Canadian meat, and activist driven welfare requirements that are limiting our ability to access the California market. Manitoba needs every leader running to be Premier to commit to actively fighting against these emerging trade barriers.
Second, Manitoba’s political leaders must commit to a rigorous science-based regulatory framework. There is a worrisome trend for regulations to be driven by activism and the latest social-media movement rather than science.
Third, policies aimed at sustainability goals and climate change mitigation must encourage innovation and not simply add unbearable costs. Encouraging early adopters for more energy efficient barns or increased nutrient utilization will be effective in advancing societal goals and make our industry more competitive. Punitive policies, like energy taxes or limiting fertilizer use add costs and limit our farmers’ ability to compete in international markets. The incentive carrot is far more effective than restrictive regulation.
Fourth, farmers need ongoing support to mitigate some of the risks they face due to politically volatile markets. We do not want to see a return to the debilitating subsidy wars of the 1970s, but agriculture does need policies in place that will allow farmers to effectively plan for the future of their operations, get through natural disasters, and weather market contractions.
I want to end with a challenge to every farmer in Manitoba. Get out and meet your candidates. All of them, and not just the candidate you agree with. Let them know how important agriculture is to every community in Manitoba. Challenge them to support our trade, encourage innovation, and set regulatory policies that are based on sound science. Political leadership in these areas will help agriculture continue to attract investment, increase our value-added industries, and grow our economy and our communities.