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Todd Hirsch: We Cannot Let Canadian Agriculture Fall Off the Policy Agenda

Todd Hirsch: We Cannot Let Canadian Agriculture Fall Off the Policy Agenda

In a generous moment, one might extend some sympathy for our elected and business leaders. To put it mildly, there’s a lot going on: geopolitics, affordability crisis, housing shortages, climate change… the list goes on.

Yet there’s a limit to our collective attention span. “Hundreds of priorities” is an oxymoron. While plenty of concerns are being squeezed off the agenda, one area of neglect is particularly worrying: agriculture and agrifoods.

Is agriculture being ignored? Certainly not by farmers and food producers. But in the most recent federal government’s Speech from the Throne, it didn’t get mentioned once. Neither did the word “agrifood.” The word “farm” appeared only three times, compared to 12 mentions of “climate” and 36 mentions of “home” or “housing.”

It may not have the economic clout of the auto sector, or the urgency of wars, carbon emissions, or housing, but we allow Canadian agriculture to slide out of our peripheral view at our peril. Without access to safe, secure, and reasonably priced food to eat, even forest fires and wars seem less important.

Building a Sustainable Future: Canadian Agriculture

If we are to keep Canadian agriculture both competitive and contributive to a growing economy, there are three areas of focus that must receive greater attention.

1. Advancing Biotechnology

The first is in advancing biotechnology, including research and development. This is important for the private sector, government, and academic researchers.

Contrary to the lingering images of farming as simplistic and nostalgic (think “Grampa’s farm”), agriculture is on the cutting edge of life sciences and biotechnology. New innovations in gene-editing technology have the potential to dramatically increase food security. Of course, not everyone is automatically on board with some of these developments; pejorative labels such as “Frankenfoods” are sometimes slapped on crops that are genetically engineered.

Conversations about the ethics of GMOs are always important to have, if for no other reason than they’ve led to some major trading partners blocking certain Canadian agrifoods. The scientific evidence around the safety of these products needs to be carefully collected and assessed if we are to make progress as a proponent.

“As Canada continues its work to feed and fuel the world, plant breeding innovation will play an increasingly important role in developing even more productive and resilient canola crops,” says Chris Davison, president and CEO of the Canola Council of Canada. This is even more true as we deal with climate change.

2. Financing

The second area of focus is the financing of agriculture and agribusiness. Despite setting some records over the pandemic years, venture capital for agribusiness in Canada has struggled so far in 2024. After hitting $273 million in investments last year, VC in agribusiness declined sharply with only $5 million in the first quarter of 2024, comprising only six deals.

“Agribusiness was the most (negatively) affected sector as investors continue to target more selected companies amid the changing macroeconomic factors,” according to the Canadian Venture Capital and Private Equity Association (CVCA). These shifting factors include higher interest rates, higher farming input costs, and slimmer margins, making certain agribusiness ventures relatively less appealing for VC investors.

Access to financing for farm operators can also be a challenge. This is where groups like Farm Credit Canada, which reports to the federal Ministry of Agriculture and Agrifoods, play an increasingly important role. Ottawa should ensure that farm financing remains reasonably accessible, regardless of some of the shifting macroeconomic pressures.

3. Trade and Transportation

The third area of focus is on trade and transportation. It doesn’t matter how well a crop grows, or how high the commodity price — if the producer cannot access customers because of clogged transportation systems or trade barriers, it doesn’t matter.

It’s been widely recognized for decades already that Canada’s surface transportation system needs some attention. Sadly, it’s only when a bridge collapses that public attention is drawn to the state of transportation infrastructure. Constant and intentional re-investment in our ports, rail lines, and road transportation is essential for the future of agriculture and agrifoods.

The same is true of global trade. Unlike the heydays of the 1990s and early 2000s, when global trade in food was taken for granted, there is growing apprehension in the 2020s. Our damaged diplomatic relations with massive markets like China and India have compromised the future of trade deals. And even our largest trading partner, the United States, seems a less reliable trade ally these days.

It’s not easy work, but our politicians at the federal and provincial levels should do all they can to ensure Canadian agriculture isn’t completely eclipsed by all the other pressing issues swirling around them. Supporting innovation and R&D in bio-tech, enhancing access to financial capital, and ensuring transportation and trade linkages are optimized are the areas of focus where our elected and business leaders can move the needle the most.

Todd Hirsch is an internationally renowned economist, keynote speaker, and author. Having had a front row seat to key issues transforming the global economy for the past 25 years, he delivers dynamic, clear-eyed talks on adaptability, creativity, and resiliency to help industry and business leaders prepare for a future that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

Contact us to learn more about Todd and how he can customize his presentations to help your industry prepare for whatever challenges and opportunities ahead.