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Photo by Jeff Tribe.
Photo by Jeff Tribe.
May 27, 2024

A new growing season is underway, and while that’s normally a cause for optimism, there isn’t as much brightness on the horizon this year.

 

As an entire industry, agriculture is facing increasing barriers and hurdles that are hindering and in some cases stifling growth. This includes ongoing rising costs; high interest rates; increasing financial burdens from things such as the carbon tax and development charges; regulatory challenges at all levels of government related to fertilizer, plastics, stormwater management, labour and more; and ever-increasing pressure from the marketplace, activists and society in general.

 

Horticulture is even more heavily impacted by these challenges than other sectors of the agriculture industry because growers must deal with a wide range of provincial ministries, federal departments and municipal organizations that all touch on food in some way.

 

Provincially, this includes Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Housing, Ministry of Transportation, and Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks. Federally, it’s Environment and Climate Change Canada; Environment and Social Development Canada; Health Canada; Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada; and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

 

In addition, there are fire marshals, health units, building departments, CanadaGAP and retail auditors, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, international liaison officers, source country partners and more – and there is little to no coordination between these groups.

 

This results in inconsistencies, extra costs, and excessive regulatory burdens which lower productivity, profitability and competitiveness for farm businesses, for the sector, and for the Ontario economy as a whole.

 

One such example is municipal regulations and rapidly rising fees that hinder building of new on-farm worker housing. Another is three-phase power infrastructure that is essential to growth and greater sustainability but too expensive for farms to access.

 

There is often also a singular, insular approach to addressing issues that may help solve one problem, but create various new ones, such as the federal government’s focus on removing single-use plastics.

 

Most horticultural crops can’t be sold in bulk, but sustainable plastic alternatives don’t yet exist or aren’t practical or cost-effective. Phasing out single-use plastics in the absence of workable alternatives will increase food waste and greenhouse gas emissions as well as impact food security, food affordability and the economic viability of fruit and vegetable businesses.

 

In the short term, this hinders growth and competitiveness, but long term, it will lead to the permanent erosion of Ontario’s ability to feed our population.  In some instances, it could mean the shifting of investment across the border to neighbouring states. In others, we could see growers transitioning to lower risk, easier to grow cash crops such as corn and soybeans.

 

Both outcomes reduce overall economic activity for the province and increase our reliance on imported fruits and vegetables to feed Ontarians – an increasingly risky gamble in an era where climate change is impacting production capacity around the world.

 

This is a complex web of challenges and greater collaboration to bring everyone to the table is absolutely essential to finding solutions that are workable for everyone. As a sector, we know we have to work together, and we would like to see the various levels of government take the same approach – both with growers and with each other.

 

On-farm worker housing is an issue that involves not just OMAFRA, but also Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Housing. Environmental Compliance Approvals for storm water and wash water management touch both OMAFRA and Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks.

 

Labour is a provincial issue, but for fruit and vegetable growers with international workers, it also involves three federal departments: Employment and Social Development Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

 

It would be great, for example, if different ministries and departments could collaborate with each other when developing new legislation and policy instead of expecting growers and grower organizations to try to address problems with one or more organizations individually.

 

In an ideal world, there would be a collective focus, including prioritization and mandate by all levels of government, on food produced right here at home.

 

This would include greater provincial collaboration with municipalities, with clear, consistent and enabling local rules that support domestic food production, and greater non-partisan collaboration with the federal government.

 

To put it simply, food is life. The changing climate is making growing environments more challenging around the world, so it’s never been more important to ensure we continue to have the ability to feed ourselves.

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Submitted by Shawn Brenn on 27 May 2024