Senate Committee’s report on Market Access Misses the Mark on Strengthening Canadian Agriculture

Thursday, May 25, 2017 - 3:10pm

The Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry’s recent report, Market Access: Giving Canadian Farmers and Processors the World asserts that “A little help from the federal government could mean the world to Canada’s farmers and food producers.” I couldn’t agree more. However, the nature and focus of that support is where our perspectives diverge. While the report offers several useful suggestions on how to increase the capacity and competitiveness of Canadian food and agriculture producers at the international level, it misses an important opportunity to talk about how to improve the sustainability and resilience of Canadian agriculture on a more fundamental, and I would argue, pressing level.

The assumption that Canadian farmers and food producers are “eager” to get into the international market exposes a problematic bias that underlies much of the federal government's current approach to agriculture, that continuing down the path of increasing exports and trade is the path of prosperity. This blind drive and obsession towards export-oriented agriculture needs to stop. The oft-repeated refrain that Canada has a responsibility to feed the growing population of the world is a laudable statement but it doesn't tell the whole story.  

Now more than ever we need to shift our focus to encourage and support a diversity of agricultural models and production practices; not to exclude large-scale producers focused on overseas markets, but to include all those other producers that are focused on local and regional markets.   

International trade will absolutely play an important role in the future of Canada’s agriculture, but we cannot forget the role of domestic markets, and the necessity of shifting to more environmentally sustainable set of practices. Farmers markets, local retailers, food box programs and co-ops might not seem like much, but they represent an important, and growing economic opportunity. It’s estimated that across Canada, Farmers Markets have an annual economic import of between $1.55 to $3.09 billion dollars (National Farmers' Market Impact Study 2009 Report). Add in to that the potential of public procurement from schools and hospitals and we’re talking about a considerably sized pie.  


Graphics by Green Belt, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and Metcalf Foundation


A recent study estimated that if Ontario replaced just 10% of its top imported fruits and vegetables with locally grown produce, it would lead to a $250 million increase in GDP and the creation of 3,400 new full-time jobs (Econometric Research Limited et al 2015). In addition, between 2012 and 2015, there was a 37% increase in the amount of organic imports, suggesting that increasing domestic processing of organic products is a key opportunity for growth within Canada’s food and agriculture sector (COTA 2017).

Ensuring the future prosperity and sustainability of Canadian agriculture means investing in the next generation of farmers and strengthening Canada’s food system.  As the recently released 2016 Census of Agriculture data shows, the number of farms in Canada continues to drop, while the average age of farmers continues to rise.  

A few things the report does get right:

  • Recommendation 11, calling for accelerated access to permanent residency for migrant workers wishing to remain in Canada.  
  • Recommendation 13, calling for the removal of interprovincial trade barriers.
  • Recommendation 16, calling for greater investment in grain transport infrastructure within Canada.

International market access may be one challenge facing Canadian farmers and food producers, but it is not “the” challenge. The future of Canada’s food system and Canadian agri-food producers will not be in international trade, robotics and automation  - it will be in shifting to more ecological and climate resilience production practices, strengthening the infrastructure of local and regional food economies, and addressing rising farm debt spurred by skyrocketing land values.  

For a different take on how to move Canadian Agriculture forward, see the recent policy recommendations from Food Secure Canada and its members:

Market Access: Giving Canadian Farmers and Processors the World

Released: May 9, 2017

Amanda Wilson is a PostDoctoral Fellow at Lakehead University, working with Food Secure Canada on agri-food policy and community-academic collaboration.