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Ritz says agriculture ‘backbone’ of Canadian economy

By Bea Vongdouangchanh      

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz says he's putting the farmers first, but critics say the federal government's doing little about the farm income crisis.

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Agriculture is the “backbone” of Canada’s economy, says Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, whose top priority is to put farmers first after years of governments developing agriculture policy without input from farmers in the industry.

“For far too long, policies were dictated by politicians to farmers in rural Canada. We’ve taken a different approach—we’re working with farmers to develop policies and programs that give them the tools they need to succeed. Profitable farmers drive success right along the chain, from trucker to food processor to retailer to the consumer at the checkout counter,” Mr. Ritz (Battlefords-Lloydminster, Sask.) told The Hill Times in an email interview for this week’s Agriculture Policy Briefing.

“What Canada lacked for a long time was a government that took decisive action and showed real leadership for farmers. From day one agriculture has been a priority for our government and by going beyond Growing Forward and working with farmers directly, we have been able to ensure that our policies respond to their needs.”

Agriculture is a “dynamic industry” which can be “unpredictable,” Mr. Ritz said, but noted that the Conservative government is working “to develop a core strategy with Growing Forward, while continuing to be flexible enough to quickly respond to the issues facing different sectors, such as recent challenges seen by the pork industry and by natural disasters in Western Canada.”

Mr. Ritz, 58, is a former grain and ostrich farmer and was first elected in 1997. He has been re-elected in every subsequent election and was appointed Agriculture Minister in August 2007. He previously served as the secretary of state for Small Business and Tourism. In opposition, he served as the Conservative Party’s agriculture critic and is a former chair of the House Agriculture Committee.

As the agriculture minister, Mr. Ritz is responsible for a portfolio which includes not only the Department of Agriculture, but also the Canadian Dairy Commission; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency; the Canadian Grain Commission; the Farm Credit Canada; the Canada Agricultural Review Tribunal; the Farm Products Council of Canada and the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency, a special operating agency that regulates and supervises parimutuel betting on horse racing at racetracks across Canada. Mr. Ritz is also the minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board.

The Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has a budget of $3.3-billion and employs 6,086 full-time equivalents. According to the department’s Report on Plans and Priorities, Mr. Ritz has three strategic priorities, which include ensuring: “an environmentally sustainable agriculture, agri-food and agri-based products sector,” “a competitive agriculture, agri-food and agri-based products sector that proactively manages risk,” and “an innovative agriculture, agri-food and agri-based products sector.”

Since coming to government, Mr. Ritz said the governing Conservatives have invested more than $15-billion in the agriculture sector, including in research, food safety, animal health, environmental policies and marketing programs. “Our government remains committed to addressing agriculture and food issues throughout Canada and we are always looking at new ways to serve them better,” he said. “Our Growing Forward suite of programming sets national goals for food safety, marketing, environmental services and farm support. While providing regional flexibility, it ensures consumers have access to the top quality produce our Canadian farmers are so proud of. Our government is taking concrete action to open new markets for our exporters while protecting supply management at home.”

What is your top priority as Canada’s agriculture minister right now?

“I’ve always had one priority and that comes from my days on the farm. When we develop policy we should put farmers first. For far too long, policies were dictated by politicians to farmers in rural Canada. We’ve taken a different approach—we’re working with farmers to develop policies and programs that give them the tools they need to succeed.

“Profitable farmers drive success right along the chain, from trucker to food processor to retailer to the consumer at the checkout counter. ‘Farmers First’ has been the cornerstone of the Conservative government’s agricultural policy and programs from day one, and will continue to be.”

What is your biggest challenge?

“Expanding market opportunities for farmers and exporters and reopening markets around the globe is a priority and there are challenges that come along with that. I’ve been on countless trade missions over the past years. When I speak to foreign governments and industries abroad, they tell me that while they routinely heard from competitors of ours, like the United States, Australia, and Brazil, they didn’t see hide nor hair of the Canadian government. Our Conservative government has worked to fill the vacuum left by the previous government, and after years of playing catch up, we are seeing tangible results for Canadian farmers.

“We’ve signed or concluded free trade agreements with EFTA (Switzerland/Lichtenstein/Iceland/Norway), Panama, Peru, Colombia and Jordan. We also have ongoing negotiations with the European Union, the Canada-Central America Four Countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) and South Korea. These will have broad benefits for the entire Canadian agriculture sector. For example, we have been able to make real progress for beef farmers by tearing down the barriers in important markets like Russia, Hong Kong, Colombia and most recently China. Access to these markets makes a real difference to farmers by putting more black back on their bottom lines.

“When I became agriculture minister, I told the department to pack their bags because we would be spending a lot of time on the road working to open up markets, and we’ve done just that. We’ve come back with real results for our farmers and will continue to do that.”

Neil Currie, general manager of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, says there’s a need for a national food strategy because, “At present, we have a complex and often disjointed network of agriculture and food-related policies that do not adequately foster long-term sustainability for the agri-food sector.” Do you agree?

“I agree that previous governments have driven farm policy down on farmers and with no broad coordination across government. Our government took unprecedented consultations in the development of our first Growing Forward policy and is going even further with consultations in the lead up to Growing Forward Two. These broad consultations with our provincial partners allow grassroots farmers to feed into the policy process and ensure that our next suite of programs best reflects their needs. Together with provinces and farmers, we’re able to ensure that our Growing Forward suite of programs best responds to the needs of farmers across Canada.”

Does Canada need a national food strategy?

“What Canada lacked for a long time was a government that took decisive action and showed real leadership for farmers. From day one, agriculture has been a priority for our government and by going beyond Growing Forward and working with farmers directly we have been able to ensure that our policies respond to their needs.

“Agriculture is certainly a dynamic industry that presents numerous challenges. Every farmer knows how unpredictable farming can be. But we’ve strived to develop a core strategy with Growing Forward, while continuing to be flexible enough to quickly respond to the issues facing different sectors, such as recent challenges seen by the pork industry and by natural disasters in Western Canada.”

What is the government, precisely, doing on this front?

“Our government remains committed to addressing agriculture and food issues throughout Canada and we are always looking at new ways to serve them better. Our Growing Forward suite of programming sets national goals for food safety, marketing, environmental services and farm support. While providing regional flexibility, it ensures consumers have access to the top quality produce our Canadian farmers are so proud of. Our government is taking concrete action to open new markets for our exporters while protecting supply management at home.

“To be frank, when I hear the coalition parties make grand pronouncements about food strategies, it reminds me of the old way of doing things, where urban-dominated governments focused on urban-centric ideas that essentially ignored rural Canada and Canadian farmers. While some focus on urban-based food policies, our government will continue to make sure our agricultural policies benefit urban and rural Canadians alike.”

Mr. Currie also says that the world’s population will double by 2050, production patterns will be affected by climate change and farmers are still facing “unprecedented economic challenges” which will “have major implications for the future of our food supply and need to be addressed.” Is this an accurate assessment? Why?

“I think it’s important to remember that if there is any group out there that has shown their resilience over generations, it’s Canadian farmers. Farmers broke the ground that now makes up this great country, and they’re best placed to break the ground that will feed Canada and the growing world in the future. As I meet with my counterparts from around the world, I continuously stress that the solution to food security is about strong, open markets and Canadian farmers are in an excellent position to be part of that solution.

“Our farmers continue to innovate and increase production, and they’re doing it in a sustainable, profitable way. As they’ve done in the past, Canadian farmers—along with a government that supports them—will tackle the problems that they may face in the future, and they’ll emerge from these challenges as a stronger industry and as a continued global leader.”

How much has the government invested in Canada’s farmers to date since the Conservatives became the government?

“The agricultural portfolio which includes Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Farm Credit Canada, the Canadian Dairy Commission, the Canadian Grain Commission, and the Farm Products Council of Canada has invested over $15-billion in research, food safety, animal health, environmental stewardship, marketing programs and other priorities of farmers. Of that total, $9-billion has been directly invested in farmers through Business Risk Management programs and grants to farm groups.”

How important is the agriculture sector to Canada’s economy?

“Canada’s hardworking farm families are the backbone of our country, our economy, and our health and well-being as Canadians. The Canadian agriculture and food sector drives eight per cent of our GDP and one in eight of our jobs. Last year, agriculture contributed almost $40-billion to our trade and $8.5-billion to our trade surplus. Clearly, in the wake of the global economic downturn, agriculture continues to be a driving force for economic recovery right across Canada.”

The House Agriculture Committee released its exhaustive report in May and had a lot of recommendations. Have you read the report and all the recommendations?

“Yes, I had the opportunity to read the report and its recommendations. There are some recommendations that our government certainly supports, and in fact, we had long ago begun taking action to achieve these goals. We have taken strong action to open markets to our agricultural commodities, enhance competition, improve agricultural research and reduce the regulatory burden on farmers. However, there are other recommendations that clearly came from the coalition parties, who are completely out of touch with the agricultural sector. For example, we will not take harmful trade actions that will result in retaliation by foreign governments and ultimately hurt the livelihoods of our farmers.”

The committee report on the competitiveness of Canada’s agriculture industry stated that “the emergence on the world market of countries producing low-cost commodities, and the trade restrictions associated with health crises such as BSE, have eroded Canadian farmers’ market share.” How is the federal government ensuring that Canada’s farmers and agricultural products remain competitive on the world market?

“Time and again, I have heard from farmers across all sectors state that in order for them to be competitive, they need access to international markets to sell their products. It’s important to realize that just as the number of countries producing low cost commodities has grown, the countries demanding high quality Canadian produce has grown as well. Consumers in Europe, the Middle East and a growing number of Asian countries are all searching out and paying for the top quality food that Canadian farmers produce.

“We’re expanding export opportunities by actively perusing both free trade agreements while fixing trade irritants. We’ve opened beef markets in Colombia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Russia; we’ve restored full access for beef in Hong Kong; and, we’ve expanded Canadian pulse crop exports to India and China. During the Prime Minister’s trip to China last December, we reopened that market to Canadian pork and signed an agreement to increase Canadian canola oil imports to China by an additional 200,000 tonnes, for a total of 350,000 tonnes in 2010. And just last month, we had a breakthrough agreement signed in front of Prime Minister Harper and President Hu to give Canada full access to the valuable Chinese market.”

The report also says the U.S.’s country-of-origin labelling rule has hindered Canada’s livestock industry, noting that “The introduction of mandatory country-of-origin labeling in the U.S. has wreaked havoc on a sector already suffering from financial losses. Since 2009, exports of live hogs are down 40 per cent compared with the same period last year. This breaks down as follows: 30 per cent fewer Canadian weaner and feeder hogs going into the U.S. and 65 per cent fewer Canadian market hogs being exported to the U.S. On an annual basis, this represents a loss of about $250-million worth of exports.” What’s your take? Is your government fighting back? How?

“Country-of Origin-Labelling (COOL) has certainly had a negative impact on the economic sustainability of Canada’s livestock sector. It’s something we’ve raised continuously with our American neighbours. And last November, we launched a World Trade Organization challenge against COOL. We believe that we have strong case and are confident that we are going to win.

“In the meantime, we have taken concrete action for our pork producers including introducing the Hog Industry Loan Loss Reserve Program which provided hundreds of millions of dollars of liquidity to farmers and a Hog Transition Program which provided funds for farmers to decommission their barns if they wished to retire from the industry.”

The committee wants the minister of agriculture to ensure the Market Access Secretariat continues its efforts to resolve technical non-tariff barriers erected by foreign jurisdictions against Canadian products. Will you?

“Yes, it was great to see the committee recognizing some of the important work this government has done. Recommended by industry, our government created the Market Access Secretariat to ensure we are tearing down these barriers. Not only is the secretariat working abroad to open markets, it is working at home with industry and the provinces to ensure our government is hitting the right target.”

The committee wants Agriculture Canada to develop a national strategy aimed at establishing an age verification system in order to harmonize the various provincial systems without weakening the ones already in place, and put Canadian agri-food products in a better position to access foreign markets and this cost not be borne exclusively by farmers. Will the government do this?

“Along with our provincial and territorial partners, we agreed to a national traceability system by 2011. As a down payment, we’ve earmarked $20-million for auction marts to upgrade their infrastructure for the new traceability system. Additionally, we are phasing out age verification by teething and have moved to RFID ear tags with birth certificate information on a national database. Our government continues to work with cattle farmers themselves to ensure that age verification will be able to be used as an effective tool and does not end up being another cost farmers are faced with.”

The committee wants the government of Canada to create a list of South Korean goods that would be subject to retaliatory trade measures if the WTO special group rules in favour of Canada in this matter and that the goods should be targeted in such a way as to maximize the economic consequences for South Korea. What do you think?

“Our government took strong action by launching a WTO challenge to South Korea’s continued closure of their border to Canadian beef. However, we strongly disagree with the recommendation that came out of the committee’s report. Negotiations need to be conducted in a manner that does not damage or strain trade relations, which ultimately harms Canadian exporters.

“Now that China has removed its ban on Canadian beef, South Korea stands alone in banning all Canadian beef. Rather than taking these shortsighted counterproductive steps we will use the momentum coming out of China to push forward Canada’s WTO case and to advance bilateral discussions to resolve this important issue. The rest of the world has recognized the safety and quality of Canadian beef and I will continue to aggressively push South Korea to do the same.”

The committee wants the government to do a study on the impact that captive supply has on live animal prices in the Canadian beef sector and wants the study’s results presented before the committee by representatives of the department by Oct. 1, 2010. Will you do this?

“Studying the impact of captive supply in the beef sector continues to come from the New Democrats and not from fact or reason. Once again the NDP are completely out of touch with agricultural issues and it is no different when it comes to captive supply.

“The Canadian cattle industry produces far more beef than can be consumed in the Canadian marketplace. We rely on exporters to buy our top quality cattle and use it to feed the world. Canadian farmers need to be able to work with buyers to maximize their profitably and the continued export of Canadian live cattle and beef is essential to the continued success of the beef industry. The NDP actually wants to take away marketing opportunities from farmers, rather than ensuring they have the opportunity to seek top dollar for our top product. To put limits on producers would drive ranchers and farmers out of business and would take away the advantage our farmers can have making the most out of our quality Canadian cattle.

“Our government will continue to expand foreign market access, reduce regulatory discrepancies between Canada and our major trading partners and increase competition in the global and domestic beef processing and food distribution industries that will create greater demand and higher prices for beef and live cattle. All of these actions will be based on fact, not on the bad fiction of the NDP.”

The committee also wants $50-million earmarked for strengthening packing capacity in Canada be spent on direct investments and repayable loans; and to improve the efficiency of existing packing infrastructure and help some companies focus on specialized niches. What do you think?

“I think it’s a great idea considering that the Conservative Party was the only party in the 2008 election to make this promise. A promise we delivered in our Economic Action Plan that provided $50-million to slaughter facilities to upgrade their facilities. This was followed by an additional $10-million in our Jobs and Growth Budget to help introduce new cost-effective technologies. This last budget also delivered $40-million for slaughter facilities to develop and implement new technologies to help them deal with the disposal of Specified Risk Material and $25-million for slaughterhouses to offset the costs of the enhanced feed ban necessitated by the discovery of BSE in Canada. Unfortunately, the coalition parties continue to oppose our government’s bold action. Once again by having a strong partnership with the ranchers, farmers and industry, we have been able to respond to their needs right away, not when the coalition parties stumble upon them.”

The committee has many, many more recommendations, but, finally, it wants the government in cooperation with the Competition Bureau to study and explore competition issues affecting agriculture sector in the 21st century and the appropriate role for competition and regulatory enforcement. Will you do this?

“The Competition Bureau is an independent agency. However, as Minister of Agriculture, I agree that competition is absolutely necessary in everything from farm inputs like fertilizer and veterinary drugs to the retail level where consumers buy these products.”

What are some of the recommendations you will actually follow, other than the ones asked here?

“Our government will be tabling a comprehensive report to Parliament in the fall outlining how we intend to proceed. However, it’s no secret that I think that the recommendations to increase market access, improve competition, and rationalize the regulatory burden on farmers are important. I think the eight recommendations of the Conservative MPs in their supplementary opinion are quite valid and important. Clearly the coalition parties have finally come around to issues that our government has been seized with for a long time, and we’ll continue to work directly with farmers on these important files.”

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