What’s holding Canada back? Part Two

We’re not the only ones. It isn’t just the agriculture industry that is frustrated with Canada’s productivity crisis. Many sectors within our natural resources industry feel we are not capitalizing on opportunities where Canada can lead. Collectively, there are feelings of frustration that federal government policies and other labour and regulatory issues are holding us back.

I was recently invited to attend and speak at a Business Council of Canada meeting about the issues affecting agriculture. I also learned a lot about what other industries (oil and gas, mining and forestry) are struggling with and how similar they are to our own issues in agriculture.  In  Part One of this blog, I wrote about emission reduction strategies, tax policy and regulation of glyphosate and gene editing. Here are a few other points worth considering and a call for more cross-industry collaboration.

Labour 

There is a huge demographic shift about to take place in agriculture. We can only wonder who will take over the family farm when older farmers retire or sell their land. Young people today have less interest in farming and you can’t blame them. The capital-intensive nature of farming, uncertain interest rates and the high cost of inputs don’t make it an easy career path. 

Like many other industries, a shortage of skilled labour will be a major stumbling block going forward.

We must do more to foster an agriculture-focused talent pool with specialties in finance and technology being just as important (maybe more) as agronomy. We should look at better apprenticeship programs and ways to involve Indigenous youth.

We’re currently in discussion with the National Circle for Indigenous Agriculture and Food about ways to foster knowledge sharing and skills development with Indigenous producers to help them reignite their passion and vital role in growing Indigenous agriculture and food businesses. This would not only provide meaningful employment, but also help with food insecurity issues and economic reconciliation. 

And we need to continue to allow access to foreign workers, who we depend on during seeding and harvest. Every year, we employ young workers from Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, and offer them good-quality housing, vehicles, and decent pay. It’s a win-win. 

Infrastructure and supply chain

It is worrisome when our international reputation as a reliable trading partner is jeopardized. Over 50% of Canada’s agriculture production is exported directly or for processing. In recent years, there have been more than a few cases of major grain elevators being completely cut off from the rail system, and unable to get products to the West Coast or the St. Lawrence Seaway. A report on Canada’s supply chain urged federal action before the system “buckles” again. There are 21 recommendations in that report. Another issue is that most areas are served by only one rail line – either CN or CP – but not both. 

Who will be our champion?

In agriculture, it’s obvious we don’t have anyone representing us internationally. I was at COP28 late last year and no federal politician – not our Prime Minister, Ag or Environment Minister – was talking about the low-emission crops that Canada sustainably produces. Too often we are criticized by our own government. Those words don’t stop at our borders – they are heard around the world.  I coach a lot of youth sports and use the age-old rule “praise in public, criticize in private.” Perhaps our federal government could take this approach when it comes to Agriculture.

I suggest we appoint a Canadian Agriculture Ambassador who could tell our story to the world.  And, wouldn’t it be great if this person worked in cooperation with the other natural resource sectors as a joint strategy?

The other problem is that far too many ag lobby groups (about 400!) are diluting the message to Ottawa. With so many different organizations, we fail to get our biggest issues and concerns dealt with at the federal level. 

Natural resources sector must seize the opportunities

The opportunities for Canada’s natural resources sector are plentiful – the world needs food and fuel, and there is no better country than Canada to supply it.

Looking to the future, we have incredible opportunities in growing the agriculture and value-added sectors. The Hebert Group recently signed an MOU with Economic Development Regina to partner on building a biomass cluster in Saskatchewan estimated to generate about  $1.8 billion by 2027. We’re talking about crops (canola, wheat and flax) and crop residues that can be transformed into renewable diesel, biodiesel, sustainable aviation fuel, and biomaterials like bioplastic and compostable packaging. 

There are huge opportunities in carbon capture and storage – it isn’t outlandish to think that we could store emissions from other parts of the world and get paid for it. Check out this report from Clean Prosperity which maps Canada’s prospective geological storage basins.

In terms of energy, could nuclear be the future of green energy in Canada? Many seem to think so. The domestic and international export market for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) is lucrative and Canada has the expertise to capitalize on this critical opportunity to provide green energy. 

While the public seems to cringe at the word “extraction,” Canada does have a rich supply of critical minerals that the world needs as we transition to a cleaner economy – these minerals are essential to the development of low-emission and zero-emission vehicles. Do we want to continue to use cell phones and laptops? We need lithium for that.

Organizations like the Business Council of Canada are helping to elevate these issues to the national and international level. We can not sit back and let our global reputation be tarnished.

It is absurd that we are not capitalizing on our abundant agriculture, energy and critical mineral sectors to create revenue sources for the investment into our future! This would seem to make a lot more sense than red-taping these industries while ballooning federal debt with the hopes of a budget that will balance itself in the future. 

I look forward to hearing more from the BCC and working collaboratively across sectors to find solutions to these important issues and keep our government accountable. We need true reform, not just more government spending.

Rising inflation, high interest rates, low productivity and a lower standard of living are not the legacy I want to leave my kids.