It was July 2019, when federal agriculture and food minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced Guelph would be the locale for the next annual conference of federal, provincial and territorial agricultural ministers.
Back then, Ernie Hardeman was still Ontario’s agriculture, food and rural affairs minister. Franco Vaccarino, who chimed in with some congratulatory quotes, was still the president of the University of Guelph. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, was still six months away.
And agri-food competitiveness was still at the top of everyone’s agenda.
In fact, in declaring Guelph would host the gathering, Bibeau further announced its theme would be “Strong Agrifood: Strong Economy.” Competitiveness was so pervasive that it was hard to imagine anything detracting from it.
Then, something did.
The Guelph meeting was originally scheduled to be held in-person last July. Like almost everything else, it was delayed due to the pandemic. When it eventually took place last month, its emphasis and outcome – reflected in what the ministers dubbed the “Guelph Statement” – showed how much different the world is now.
The statement, intended to carry the sector through to 2028, has five priority areas: climate change and the environment; science, research and innovation; market development and trade; building sector capacity and growth; and resiliency and public trust.
Those priorities will be the touchstone for shaping the next policy framework, which will surely look much different than the last one. The ministers haven’t lost sight of competitiveness. But in announcing the priorities, Bibeau first mentioned they would position Canada for continued success in sustainable agriculture. Enabling a globally competitive sector followed; two years ago, it surely would have led.
The change emphasizes two points, at least.
First, when it comes to federal, provincial and territorial meetings, it’s good to get together and keep checking in. Sometimes you wonder if these kinds of meetings are much more than an opportunity for the host province or city to show off its agri-food sector and research facilities. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact, there are many things right about that, including giving the minister and others a chance to see how federal money is being invested, and a snapshot of the progress that’s being made locally.
But at one time these gatherings outside Ottawa were also to help local concerns reach the minister’s ears. Given the amount of lobbying that takes place these days though, and the media monitoring in all ministers’ offices, it would be unrealistic to think Ottawa isn’t already tuned in. And as we know, modern communications technology that has evolved in the last two years means many gatherings can be held remotely.
This year, however, the minister really needed to look everyone in the eye and hear them say “I’m in.”
She needed them to applaud and trumpet their shared vision, not just nod their heads.
She needed them to believe in their declaration that Canada is recognized as a world leader in sustainable agriculture and agri-food production “and drives forward…from a solid foundation of regional strengths and diversity, as well as the strong leadership of the Provinces and Territories, in order to rise to the climate change challenge, to expand new markets and trade while meeting the expectations of consumers, and to feed Canadians and a growing global population.”
Competitiveness is still there, implicit in much of the multi-faceted statement and in supplementary quotes from Bibeau, such as “farmers and agri-food entrepreneurs…must be incredibly resilient and innovative in the face of many challenges, including climate change, fluctuations in international trade, and labour shortages.”
But acting on the advice of the agri-food sector, she also notes that all agreed they would “invest widely to grow the sector while protecting our environment, reducing our emissions and safeguarding the well-being of those who ensure our food security.” Bibeau says the Guelph Statement reflects the large amount of input received through stakeholder consultations, not just the collective thoughts of the ministers.
Government emphasis on climate and the environment will bring more change to agriculture. People everywhere, from those marching in the streets in Glasgow at the global summit on climate, to those making buying decisions as they navigate the aisles of a grocery store, have made it clear this is a priority. Now, so has agriculture.