An interview with Gerry Ritz
By Nicolas Heffernan
What’s your vision for agriculture in Canada going forward?
Well it’s a great time to be in agriculture. The optimism of farmers and the entire value chain is quite high. I’ve had the great opportunity to attend a lot of the annual meetings of the different green commodities, the livestock sector and so on over the last month or six weeks and I’ll continue to do that as they hold those coast to coast to coast. The optimism is extremely high. The world is demanding of a secure sustainable food supply and Canada is one of very few countries that has the opportunity and the ability to step up and continue to deliver more. There’s a growing preference for nutritious food with a lighter environmental footprint and again Canada has an exceptional story to tell.
What do you think Canada’s place is as a food producer in a global context?
I think our place is actually changing. For decades really Canada has always been a huer of wood and a drawer of water and we exported a lot of raw materials. There’s a growing recognition and realisation that we need to value add and maintain some of the by-products for our livestock sector to make sure that they have availability of cheaper foodstuffs for their animals. We continue to evolve and work with industry to make sure it has the ability. We’ve got one of the lowest corporate tax regimes in the world. We’re looking at a complete overhaul of our regulatory package to make sure that we’re not burdening industry, business with a lot of extra paperwork, a lot more than is required. We’ve passed legislation now that if I’m to bring in a new regulation I need to move an old one out of the way so that we’re not wrapping the onion even tighter.
How is the government going to try and support farmers?
Well there are always challenges in the farm sector at the farm gate level, whether it’s weather or market disruptions. Working with our partners, the provinces and territories, we’re going into our second tranche of Growing Forward, that a five year program. This time around we’ve got a tremendous amount more, some $3 billion in investment monies for science and research, competitive innovative ideas and of course marketing to make sure that our guys have the ability to get out there on the market and sell their goods. For the first time ever we’re also looking at maintaining our domestic consumption in good, top quality Canadian products. You know Canadians are very patriotic that way. They love to consume Canadian product because they know it’s some of the best in the world. At the same time that we’re investing in a proactive way we also have a full suite of programming there as a backstop – the crop insurances, agri-stability, agri-recovery and programs such as that to make sure that farmers have access to cash flow dollars from governments when and if there’s a major disaster, whether it’s weather related or in the market place.
What can be done to make the supply chain run more smoothly?
I think the (relationship between farmers and packagers/supply chain) is much better than it was some time ago and we’re seeing some of that in the grain sector. Out west we were withheld value added because of some of the antiquated rules and regulations that the old single desk called the Canadian Wheat Board. The livestock industry has embraced the vertical integration and horizontal integration, they look at the value chain and there’s a much better working relationship throughout the chain when it comes to the cow/calf through to the background through to the feedlot and on it not the processing sector and moving forward, a much better working relationship than there’s been for quite some time.
How do we allow the processing sector run more smoothly?
Make sure that they have the ability to innovate. We have one of the lowest corporate tax regimes in the world, of course that draws investment. We saw Tim Horton’s move back from the US, back into Canada because of that tax change and that’s very impressive and important but we continue to work with industry, the processing sector to make sure they have the tools. We’ve had expedited capital cost allowances where they can write off new innovative ways to handle products cheaper. They can do that in a more effective way than they could before and for the first time ever the Growing Forward suite of programming we’re actually addressing some of the needs of the processing sector. The first Growing Forward suite, the last five years really backstopped the farm gate much more than it had up to that point without adhoc payments , we’re now looking forward to the next stop of the value chain and the processing sector and do quite a bit of work there, which again benefits the farm gate.
Generally speaking, what does Canada do well?
Well we’re exceptionally good at innovation. When it comes to equipment there’s a tremendous amount of product that comes out of farm shops that are better ways of managing seeding, spraying, harvesting, tillage, all those types of things. We’ve seen some sea changes in the last decade. We’re also very innovative. Canada has to move along with the rest of the world on biotechnology. If you’re going to produce a nutritious product at a price that people can afford we have to move to a lot more science research and biotechnology and of course Canada is very adept at doing that. Part of our strength is the diversity of our agriculture portfolio in the number of products that we produce and also the size and scope of the landmass that if we have a flood in one area generally it’s isolated and we’ll pick up the crop volume in other areas. So it’s a great spot to be in, in Canada. We’re one of the very few countries that have the ability to adapt to the new reality – the security and sustainability of food stuffs throughout the world.
What does Canada need to improve on?
I think we need to do a lot better work with our trading partners. We want to make sure that all of our trade is governed by science not by phytosanitary concerns that pop up from time to time. And there are international bodies that adjudicate that. As you well know, we took advantage of our status with the WTO to take the United States to task on country of origin labelling and when we see those types of issues that come up that are harmful to our industry as a government we’re proud, we have the right and responsibility to hold these other countries to account and make sure the playing field is level.
Minister Gerry Ritz has been serving food processors, farmers and all Canadians as Minister of Agriculture since 2007, and as Member of Parliament for Battlefords-Lloydminster since 1997. He previously served as Secretary of State for Small Business and Tourism and continues to represent his native Saskatchewan as Regional Minister.