Good Ideas Drowning in Regulation

Commentary, Agriculture, Rolf Penner

Food regulations are meant to protect us, yet in a growing number of instances they do more harm than good. Examples of stalled innovations in Canadian food production and additives, including an inability to sell new lines across provincial borders, are plentiful. The latest case involves a new animal feed – low-phytate barley – which would put more money in farmers’ pockets and reduce the impact of phosphorous on our waterways. Despite these manifest advantages, a regulatory wall erected by the federal government is keeping this exciting new innovation on the shelf rather than where it belongs, in farmers’ fields.

Phytate is a naturally occurring chemical in plants that combines with nutrients and minerals and interferes with their absorption into the body. A group of barley breeders from the University of Saskatchewan spent years breeding a new variety that minimizes this phenomenon. Low-phytate barley would be a boon for the hog and chicken sectors in two ways. First, because more phosphorus would be provided naturally for animals in their feed, farmers could lower their input costs. They could add a lot less extra phosphorus to feed rations and would need a lot fewer supplements that are now added to break down phytate in existing barley feed. Another significant bonus is that it offers an elegant solution to an environmental problem, phosphorus in our lakes and rivers. Animals fed this barley end up discharging a lot less phosphorus out their back ends.

Yet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has inexplicably and without any scientific rationale decided that low-phytate barley, which is bred by conventional means, qualifies as a “novel feed,” a designation which puts it in the same category as genetically modified crops.

Ronald Doering, an Ottawa food lawyer, can certainly relate to the plant breeders’ dilemma. He routinely deals with food products that get ensnared in Canada’s regulatory web. In a recent article, Doering described the current system as “sclerotic” and laments the fact that there is “little understanding in Ottawa that the main obstacle to innovation in the Canadian food industry is not lack of know-how, or even funding.” Politicians love to hand out money for research and innovation and we develop great new products. But if those products can’t get assessed or approved in a reasonable time-frame, they never make it to the marketplace.

Doering regularly deals with companies that avoid Canada for a good reason, our regulatory mania. The approval of new food additives can take from three to six years, and new processing ideas two years. Even if they are already widely sold elsewhere, innovative foods take many years to work their way through the system.

“Canada’s ability to compete in the emerging $100-billion functional food industry continues to be fundamentally undermined by delays in approving new rules to allow for new additives, supplements and enzymes,” Doering adds. “Canada’s regulatory change sys¬tem is still the most cumbersome and time consuming in the Western world. We still hear a lot of talk about regulatory reform and ‘smart regulation,’ but nobody in the industry should believe that anything is actually going to change any time soon.”

Even within the country, we erect unnecessary barriers to commercial food products. Winnipeg native and journalist Andrea Mandel-Campbell, author of the new book Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson, was recently asked, “Why should we expect Mexicans to drink Molson’s when Manitobans can’t drink beer made in Ontario?” She agreed that regulation within Canada is a big problem, one that subtly affects our ability to compete in the world.

“If you’re already weighed down by all these millstones of interprovincial trade barriers, it reduces your potential to be successful and competitive. It forces you to look inward and restrain your business to your own province instead of looking at all of Canada,” she said. “You compete internationally the way you compete in your own country. If in your home country you’re being held down by all these different obstacles, your competitive edge is significantly less sharp. If the signals sent by domestic competition are not getting through to you, how would you be able to recognize them in the international realm?”

Politicians love to crow about regulations they enact. They take out advertisements bragging about how tough they are on industries and how they are protecting us. Protecting us? From innovation, productivity, competitiveness, investment, more money in our pockets, a longer life and a cleaner environment? They have got to be kidding.