Developing Canadian Agricultural Policy

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

The differences between American and Canadian farm policy exist for a reason. Perhaps we should consider whether or not the tail is wagging the dog on this side of the border.

“Policy” can mean whatever you want it to mean. It consists of what an organization decides to do, or a quasi-rule that governs the conduct of the organization. In the case of farm policy, it usually means what governments decide to do. The decisions of elected officials affect us all. But who develops policy is very important, and herein lies the problem.

Farmers and agricultural communities can be considered “clients” of the various departments of agriculture in Canada. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada just underwent a massive policy development process designed to revamp how agriculture is “done” in Canada. Known as the Agriculture Policy Framework (APF), it deals with everything from support programs to food safety, to renewal and the environment. All this sounds like a neat and tidy package dealing with all aspects of agriculture, but it is already under fire from farm groups like the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP).

At KAP’s recent annual general meeting, the keynote speaker was Dr. Hartley Furtan, a Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Saskatchewan. He described the startling contrast between farm policy development in Canada versus the United States.

He noted that in Canada farm programs are designed by bureaucrats, while in the U.S. it’s politicians that determine American farm policy. “In Canada, we worry a lot about the WTO, while in the U.S. they worry about their constituents,” said Furtan.

Let that staggering thought sink in for a minute. It is fine to be concerned about the trade implications of farm policy and to work towards free and open trade. However the bureaucratic stranglehold on farm policy in Canada results in farm programs that look fine on paper but simply don’t work. They may work for the bureaucracies that design them, but they sure as heck don’t work for farmers.

In my ideal world, farmers and agricultural communities would engage in a dialogue with government and farmers’ needs would be taken into account as farm policy develops. Of course, governments must also deal with society at large, so farmers would not be surprised if what emerges wasn’t exactly what they wanted. But the final result should somewhat reflect their wishes.

It does in the U.S., but not in Canada. Powerful elected senators from American farm states ensure that the needs of their constituents are reflected in farm policy. In Canada, policy is developed by unaccountable bureaucrats who then bestow it on farmers. Sure, there’s always “consultation.” But it’s usually after the fact and has little influence over the final outcome.

What bothers me about this process is the passivity of our elected officials, especially the relevant Cabinet ministers. They act like interested spectators but seem divorced from the final result.

It’s no wonder that “farm country” is getting a mite upset with government. Look for more tractor cavalcades like the recent farm protest in Ontario. Think CAIS, Environmental Farm Plans, the gun registry, new fisheries enforcement measures, Kyoto, and our new Species at Risk Act (SARA). Enough said.