As the federal, provincial and territorial governments consider program updates, these officials should consider farmers’ environmental contributions
By Jim Algie
Part of the solution to Canada’s current policy struggle over complex business risk management programs in the era of Donald Trump’s trade war should involve payments to farmers for environmental goods and services, says Dr. Don Buckingham.
He’s president and CEO of the Ottawa-based Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI). This think tank finances policy research and discussion on emerging issues in the ag industry, CAPI’s website says.
Lately, some of that research has concentrated on methods for “increasing producer and processor income” through emerging policies on the environment and climate change. An opinion piece Buckingham released during the fall federal election campaign highlighted widespread misunderstandings about greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian agriculture.
In the piece, Buckingham also directed readers’ attention to a 14-page CAPI-commissioned research paper by economists Al Mussell and Margaret Zafiriou and former Maple Leaf Foods executive Ted Bilyea. The trio proposed “Efficient Agriculture as a Greenhouse Gas Solutions Provider.”
“We need policy options that are really driving at increasing producer and processor income but, at the same time, responding in a very tangible way to some of the environmental goods and services mandates that are being recognized by government and retailers,” Buckingham said to Better Farming. He is a lawyer, a former legal counsel for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and an author on administrative law specialized in agriculture.
Buckingham hopes to boost the profile of CAPI research by “hammering away at getting out the message.”
Farmers’ concerns about the inadequacy of Canada’s business risk management programs amid disruptive U.S. trade policies highlight dramatic changes in the “increasingly complex world” of agricultural trade, Buckingham said.
“We used to have domestic policy and we’d basically have federal-provincial-territorial negotiations to figure out our domestic policy. And then we could have the federal government pretty much take care of our trade policy,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s that simple any more. I think it’s way more complicated and business risk management suites are going to have to take into consideration how we actually do agriculture and processing.”
“It’s almost like a re-conceptualization of the whole nine yards,” said Buckingham, who provided legal counsel on the federal-provincial negotiations for their Growing Forward 1 agreement.
Environmental benefits, both domestically and internationally, will likely play a role in future farm policy. But it will involve clarification of current misunderstandings about the environmental contributions of Canadian agriculture, Buckingham said.
The idea that ecological goods and services may be part of future adjustments in Canada’s agricultural policy framework makes sense to some farm activists. Chris van den Heuvel, a Cape Breton dairy and beef producer and second vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said he welcomes the discussion.
“We recognize that these are new times that we’re living and working in. We have to be even more cognizant than we were previously,” van den Heuvel said.
“Farmers recognize that they’ve been doing a lot of good work for a long time, so we push the government to recognize that we’re actually leaders in that field.” He referred to recent changes in tillage technology and crop rotation that come with environmental benefits.
Buckingham identifies consumer pressure for environment-friendly food options and for government policy to combat climate change. But he also argues that processors and farmers need to be paid adequately for the benefits they provide to consumers and society.
“We don’t think the processors and the producers should be hammered to give these as a kind of freebee,” Buckingham said. Compensation for the environmental benefits agriculture provides has “to be built in to how we do business and, considering the kind of turmoil we have in the markets, it just seems like this is the time.
“That’s kind of how we look at it: producer income and how do we marry that with maintaining natural capital so producers and processors can actually cash in on some of that value,” he said.
In terms of such factors as water consumption, livestock genetics and fossil fuel use, the efficiency of Canadian agriculture compares favourably with agricultural production in other parts of the world, Buckingham said, citing the Mussell-Zafiriou-Bilyea research.
But under current policy, Canadian farmers are “not actually getting the benefit of that as an efficient, sustainable production system,” Buckingham said.
“A lot of people in the debate don’t seem to get beyond the aggregate numbers that came out regarding climate change in agriculture,” he said. “I mean, you take down huge tracts of forest ... and you are liberating tonnes and mega-tonnes of carbon. That’s really not good for the environment.
“But from a Canadian point of view on agriculture, for instance, our red meat production is incredibly efficient, somewhere in the top 90 per cent, and we’re getting painted with the same brush as other people who aren’t as efficient,” Buckingham said.
“We have to look at the potential for agriculture to provide the environmental goods and services that will lead to climate change emission reductions that all urban and rural populations need. We must figure out how to pay farmers for that,” he said. BF