National food strategy rooted in Elgin


Posted by Ian:

With no clearly defined picture as to what Canada’s agri-industry should look like in the coming decades, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture is taking a lead role in devising a national food strategy. OFA vice-president Mark Wales, who farms near Copenhagen in east Elgin, is a vocal advocate for a clear, defining agricultural template that can be adopted on a national scale.

City Scope conducted a lengthy interview with Mark on March 9 of this year. What follows is the entire unedited version of the phone interview with Mark in Toronto that delved into a national food strategy, a similar undertaking in the U.K., GM foods and other agri-industry topics on the radar.

City Scope: Mark, define for us what has led up to the push for a national food policy.

Mark Wales: There never has been any clear defining, overarching national or even provincial food strategy in this country. Some municipalities, like Vancouver, have a food strategy and I think Manitoba has a bit of one, but those are mainly focused around very local food. But there is nothing overall to say what should Canadian agriculture look like, whom should we be trying to feed, what should we be trying to produce and who should be doing it and under what standards and so on.

There is a myriad of policies but none of them with any overarching vision or strategy. So, that’s what we’re working on here, both in Ontario at the OFA level, and at the national level through the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

CS: What would the strategy entail?

Mark: One of the fundamentals is we want to have a vision of what agriculture should look like in this country going forward, and you need to look out a ways. The U.K is probably the best example. In January they released their document, UK 2030. They’ve looked 20 years ahead and said, here we are now, here’s where we want to go, what do we need for policies and programs to get us there.

In their preamble, they recognize that the UK as a country and a nation is not food self-sufficient. They cannot feed themselves, and historically they’ve not been able to. They are a trading nation. They require imports. And typically their imports will come from the Third World. One of their policy pillars is they want to see a stable Third World. They don’t want to see food riots or shortages of rice in places like Thailand. They want stablity and sustainable Third World farmers so that they will be able to feed themselves and their families and have food to export to the UK.

And that makes everything work. They recognize we’re in an era of climate change, global warming is a reality, so they’ve said, ‘What are our policies and programs to recognize that.’ Their overarching goal is to produce more, with a lesser footprint.

The UK has long not dealt with the whole issue of genetically-modified food. They’ve said, ‘We must move to the production of GM crops.’ And politically they haven’t been able to deal with it. But they’ve said, ‘We will deal with it, and we will grow GM crops.’ It’s a fairly giant leap forward for them.

They’ve recognized 50% of all food produced is lost and wasted between the field and the fork. So, they said, ‘How do we address that?’ So it’s everything about going right back to the farm level in the developed world and the farm level in the Third World and saying, let’s reduce field loss, transportation and storage loss, let’s reduce loss in processing and let’s educate people in how to store and prepare foods so there is not so much wastage.

They’ve looked at all the energy consumed in the process, and one of the real targets is to reduce the weight and amount of packaging. That’s not a new issue, but if we reduce all packaging by 10 or 20%, that requires less energy to move it, less energy to create it and it’s less waste.

They want to work on the education of farmers to get them modernized, help them move forward into the new world and bring up their skill sets. But, it’s tying that all together.

Now, we’ve got some of that. For example, one of the positions I hold is on the National Sector Council for agriculture. So, we work on looking ahead and seeing what are the training needs and training gaps, not only for farmers, but for their employees as well? And then let’s push Human Resource and Skills Development Canada to develop the training programs to train the next generation of farmers and farm workers. But we’re doing all that without an overall driver to do it.

The UK has put it together in a beautiful package. They have looked at all the issues and they’ve said, ‘We need a program to do this.’

CS: At what stage are you with the strategy process?

Mark: So, we’ve been around the (Ontario) federation and back in January we had a series of five regional policy advisory meetings across the province with our members and we said, ‘What do you think the national food strategy should look like? What should be the components?

There were lots of key messages. Profitable farmers was a big one. Right now the only policy in Canada is there will be cheap food, which means poor farmers. The U.S. has an overarching policy of being the lowest cost-provider of food to the world, subsidized by the U.S. treasury. It’s all about market share.

That’s not an option here. We can’t eat all we produce. But we have to import as well as export, that’s the reality of Canada.

People talk a lot about sustainability, but it means different things to different people. For a conventional farmer, sustainability means they need to be profitable so their children might be interested in farming. There are an amazing amount of opportunities for careers in agriculture. There needs to be a vibrant agricultural economy. We need to produce as much as we can for domestic consumers and there should be a buy Canada first policy. That clearly came out.

Government should buy local whenever possible in all government institutions. It’s policy in the U.S. and the U.K. Why is it not policy here? You can get the best quality, and yeah you can’t get it 12 months of the year necessarily, but if they had a buy Canada policy it might drive the technological development for people to be willing to grow some of this.

Right now, a lot of the greenhouse industry is moving to Mexico. They’re doing it because it’s low cost. So they’re doing it to survive. We have lots of empty greenhouses in this province, certainly, that could produce food here if there was a demand for it and it has to be at a fair price, or what’s the point.

CS: So a national food strategy would focus on all of this?

Mark: We’ve started it here and the CFA has been working on it for awhile. Up until now, politically and philosophically, the time hasn’t been right. I think the realization amongst the farm community now nationally is that we’re less than 2% of the population and the governments are only paying lip service to us at best. They take the attitude someone will always farm the land, therefore we need to pay attention to GM and Ford and the auto industry but the farmers will always be there. They know farmers will always struggle through somehow. What they don’t realize is, with all the issues we face currently, we will tend to lose specialty agriculture first, so horticulture. It’s labour intensive, people will get fed up with those because it’s minimum wage and flat prices. The fall back will be they can put the whole farm in corn and soy beans because I don’t have to hire anybody, it’s relatively stress free and I know I can forward contract my price. It may not be a pretty price, but I know I can do that.

The next thing we’ll lose is specialty animal agriculture. In the hog and beef industry, it’s a nightmare. We’ve got supply management in dairy, chicken, eggs, turkey and so on, but they’re always under threat. Look at dairy producers, they’re having to get bigger. There’s not a lot of 50-cow dairy herds anymore, they’re tending to be 150-plus.

With the federal government, one of their keystones is get innovative and sell more stuff, but at the end of the day, what’s the point of selling it if you’re not making anything? You start getting innovative and you get value added on the farm and then MPAC comes along and they assess you into the Stone Age.

We’ve been trying to get the provincial government to deal with assessing things properly, and that’s not just an issue in Ontario.

CS: What specifically is needed within the national strategy?

Mark: So, we tied all these things together and here’s what we want. We want vibrant, profitable farmers and we want them farming sustainably. We want to deal with all the environmental issues which we’ve already been doing, but we’ll do more of them. We’ll continue to supply clean air and clean water and we’ll provide the freshest food we can to as many Canadians as we can and as many international customers who are willing to pay an appropriate price for it.

We want to make sure food coming into this country should meet the same standards as food produced in this county. And that’s a long-standing problem for the horticultural industry because there’s nothing being inspected that comes in.

So, all of these things came out and we’re going through that process this year and we’ll try to move this forward. The national food strategy will give government a reason to support agriculture in this country and that’s what we really look forward to. Our hope is we’ll be able to get the public on board because they trust farmers to produce the right food. And for those of us who sell at farmer’s markets and direct, we know that. But they need the opportunity to buy that product from a local farmer. They need to know if they go into a grocery store and it says Ontario, it actually was grown in Ontario, not Mexico or wherever. Many consumers are willing to support that. They need to trust the labelling is right.

CS: Who would oversee such a strategy?

Mark: If we get the strategy and vision accepted by government, which is essentially the public, then out of the strategy is what drives the policies and programs. So it would dictate there needs to be a program to support clean energy production or it needs to support local production or local buying or some of the issues the U.K. has looked at. Typically programs for agriculture, and other sectors of the economy as well, they tend to be a reaction to a crisis rather than forward planning. So we’re talking about trying to forward plan for a whole generation here.

CS: Do you run the risk of over regulation?

Mark: We’re already over-regulated and if you read the U.K. document, one of the pillars of it is about reducing the regulations. And that’s one of the themes, making it simpler to do things.

CS: What has been the progress to date?

Mark:We had our policy meetings in January, which was the first step – get input from our members. It will be coming to our board this month (March) and our next policy session is in April in Toronto. There will be a report to our policy advisory council then. There’s an ongoing working group between the Ontario group and the CFA trying to get the other provinces working on it as well. Once you’ve devised it, it’s a template. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, province by province.

Then it’s devising a lobby strategy to get the strategy accepted by government and that’s where we start to bring in the pubic, the retailers and various environmental groups who support sustainable agriculture. There’s lots of groups out there beyond agriculture who should be willing to support lots of this and we need to bring them on board one at a time. This is not going to happen overnight.

CS: What about the U.S. where agri-industry is heavily subsidized?

Mark: Well there is one of life’s challenges. It works in the U.K., even though you look 20 miles across the English Channel and they have the rest of the European Union, which has very heavily subsidized farmers in it. The French farmers are the biggest group subsidized, by far.

The U.S. is focused on grabbing market share around the world, and that’s a problem. They are our largest trading partner, that’s a fact of life. But, we need a level playing field, a fair set of rules and we need to make sure they’re not swamping our market with product that doesn’t meet our standards. That’s regulatory.

And we have to deal with the Canadian dollar. We can’t control it, it’s a fact of life. It appears to have found it’s new, semi-permanent level and we have to work within that. We have to deal with all of these things in the future, but nevertheless, we need to be sustainable here. To have a next generation of farmers, we need a long-term plan that government, and therefore society, buy in to.

CS: How will this impact here in Elgin and surrounding counties?

Mark: Now that the automotive industry is gone, by default, agriculture, agri-food and agri-business is probably the number one job creator. Elgin has always been that way. You pull away that security blanket of automotive, and we’re left. Well, help us. We want to be there, we want to create jobs, but there are times we need some policies and programs.

We’ve got a biodiesel facility going up in Springfield, there’s a proposed pelletization plant for purpose-grown crops, probably in the Tillsonburg-Delhi area to feed the Nanticoke plant. There’s lots of things going on, but if there are no farmers left with any ability to take on some risk, nobody will do it. The opportunity will go elsewhere. We need a progressive industry here that can survive and deal with the challenges.

CS: What is the time frame for moving forward?

Mark: I would suspect this will probably be the theme of our annual convention in November in Toronto. And then we’ll go from there.

CS: On a related note, are concerns surrounding genetically-modified foods as prevalent in Canada as they are in the U.K. and the European Union?

Mark: I’ve been growing Roundup Ready soybeans and corn for well over 10 years. There’s probably 40 to 50% of the corn and soybeans that are potentially Roundup Ready. That’s been the main focus here for genetic modification. Now, there has been an issue out on the prairies with some flax and some canola, and that’s a problem. But for the rest of the country for GM corn and soybeans, the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west. It’s been really good for me, because I grow corn and soybeans and then I rotate my vegetable crops after those. It’s very simple. I spray once with Roundup, and that’s it. So, I’m not having to use three or four different sprays, some of which have carry-over issues in the soil and prevent me from growing certain crops afterward. And I’m not seeing any resistance, which people always said is going to happen. And I use cultivation as well in my program. Science and society have to catch up with the whole issue.

MARK WALES BIOGRAPHY

Mark Wales was elected Vice-President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) at the 2008 Annual Meeting. Previous to that he served on the OFA Executive Committee when the OFA Board of Directors elected him at its inaugural meeting in 2007. He served a number of terms on the OFA Board.

He graduated from the University of Guelph in 1976 with a BSc. Ag degree, and since has been involved in diversified farming in the horticulture sector and tobacco. As part of his Nuffield Canada Scholarship program, he presented on the subject “Alternative Crops to Replace Tobacco in Ontario.”

Mark’s work with agricultural organizations began in the late 1980s when he delivered land stewardship workshops. His accomplishments include being elected chair of the Elgin County Peer Review Committee for the Environmental Farm Plan; chair of the Elgin Stewardship Council; President of the Garlic Growers’ Association; chair of the Safety Net Committee of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association.

He is a director-at-large of the Elgin County Federation of Agriculture and has been involved with the local federation for 15 years. This work brought him to involvement with the OFA where he served as chair of the Farm Finance, Trade and Taxation Committee, and he served as OFA’s representative on the Labour Issues Co-ordinating Committee. He was recently elected as an agriculture representative on the Lake Erie Source Water Protection Committee.

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