We love technology. Apple brings out a new cell phone and there are line-ups around the block. We are talking to our own houses these days as our homes become “smart”. And our houses are talking back (I think the Irish Rovers had a song about that). Yet, when it comes to technology and agriculture, the same people that stand in line for the latest phone seem to want to go back to the technology of 1950.
We had pesticide-free, grown without fertilizers, and non-GMO agriculture in Canada once. The result was an environmental disaster, with the soils of Saskatchewan blowing into Ontario and year after year of crop failure. Technology free agriculture also delivered poverty and hopelessness for farm families across Canada. We can’t go back to those days.
What does this discussion have to do with the current federal election? Governments are under pressure from many activists to move away from science and risk-based regulations to limit the adoption of agricultural technology. For example, I have participated in the discussions surrounding the creation of a National Food Policy in Canada. Several well-meaning people in these debates want Canada to turn back the clock and become fertilizer and pesticide-free while implementing regulations to limit or even eliminate new plant breeding technology.
These arguments have traction. Over time governments have become more and more urban. Most of today’s politicians don’t have an inherent understanding of agriculture and need to be reminded what the industry means to the Canadian economy and the number of jobs in our cities and towns that depend upon the industry.
The Advisory Council on Economic Growth (“Barton Report”) recognized agriculture and agri-food as one of the key drivers of the Canadian economy, establishing the goal of increasing the value of our exports to $75 billion by 2025. We will not accomplish this goal unless Canada is at the forefront of defining an international regulatory environment that has a foundation of sound risk-based science.
Farmers across this country depend on access to international markets for their livelihood. A farmer in a small rural town must have access to Japan, Indonesia, Algeria, and about 100 other countries to ensure they are economically viable. If countries are free to set up trade barriers in response to the latest internet fad, with no reference to risk-based evidence or health and safety concerns, farmers will soon find themselves without any markets to sell into.
There is pressure within some of our trading partners to move away from predictable risk and science-based regulations. For example, we see extensive, unpredictable and non-science, and at times politically motivated, regulations on plant technology. Existing and emerging European pesticide regulations, which are not based on appropriate risk models, are limiting trade. Canada can, and should, become a leader in countering these trends through the adoption and promotion of risk and science-based rules of trade. This will require adjustments to our domestic regulatory environment on plant technology and farm inputs.
A survey of Canadian plant breeders indicates nearly half alter or scale-back their research because Canada’s regulatory system has not adjusted to new techniques, like gene editing. When plant breeders pull back on innovation Canada loses out on opportunities to develop small and medium technology businesses and to open up the opportunity to deliver a broader selection of food products to consumers. Holding back innovation also makes Canadian farmers less competitive in the international marketplace.
Pesticides are an important component of modern agricultural practices that are allowing Canadian farmers to reduce fuel use, increase soil health, reduce erosion, and sequester carbon. Preventing farmers from using these tools because of pressure from activists and without science and risk-based analysis, has unintended negative environmental and economic implications.
This brings us to the question of resources available to our regulatory agencies, both human and financial. We need to ensure that there is the capacity within departments to support the growing demands on our regulatory system and to extend the mandate of agencies and departments to include the promotion of science and risk-based trade. New resources should be allocated across the whole of government, including departments like Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Global Affairs Canada as well as regulatory agencies like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.
Farmers need to be challenging candidates and their parties to outline their plan to encourage the growth and development of Canadian agriculture and to allow our farmers to compete in international markets. Here are four questions that every candidate should face in the ongoing federal campaign: