Agriculture issues would benefit from more open debate, says CAPI

  • National Newswatch

Debate shortcomings compounded by lack of policy action

Ottawa-A lot more in-depth debate about the options and approaches available for agriculture policies could make them more effective for farmers, says Tyler McCann, Managing Director of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute (CAPI).

More thoughtful debate on critical issues should be part of a more dynamic policy process, McCann said. Delivering optimal policy outcomes would ideally come from thorough dialogue and debate that explores all the grey areas. “However, policy outcomes in agriculture and food seem increasingly less than ideal lately, and some of that may be because they are not getting the debate they deserve.

“The inability to make incremental improvements during a 5-year policy framework makes outcomes worse. Adaptive management embodies an approach where options can be debated and policies implemented followed by measuring outcomes, debating results and making changes based on the lessons learned. It is an approach to policy development that reflects that things are not black and white. It is unfortunate there is not more of it in agriculture and food, because things are grey in the sector, and recognizing that there is not one right answer might help get action and better outcomes.”

For that reason, CAPI is changing its approach to providing information for farmers and others in the agrifood sector by including perspective reports written by thought leaders in particular fields. They will give readers credible information that reflects legitimate differences in expert opinion rather than just issuing research reports that could appear to reflect the single view of the organization. “There is a lot of opportunity to go further in engaging more voices on more important policy issues.

“Just aiming for a consensus can disguise radically different approaches to principal issues. There is a substantial difference between environmental policy focused on investing in changing on-farm practices or investing in research and innovative solutions development, or intensive, productivity-driven agriculture, or extensive, low input, low output production. The outcome on environmental policy would be better if there was more of a debate on those differences.”

Even when there is general agreement within agriculture on issues, “getting action can still be tough. For example, there is cross party support for exempting the remaining agriculture emissions from the carbon tax, but political considerations prevent it from happening. Just because the sector agrees on something, it does not mean the rest of the country or the party in power does,” he said.

At a time of increasing concern over polarization, calling for more debate may not be a popular proposition. “Some may not see it as especially useful. However, there are big issues facing Canadian agriculture and food, and they deserve more debate than they are getting and, the outcomes would be better if they did.”

Most importantly, more thorough, thoughtful debate may also lead to more policy action which is what is really lacking in the sector. The big issues “can take up all the oxygen in the room, but conversely, they can be so sensitive the debate does not happen at all. There is ample justification for a thoughtful debate about the modernization of supply management, but it is so sensitive and polarized that a dialogue typically devolves into a not productive debate about scrapping supply management, or it does not happen at all.”

Many smaller issues do not get debated enough and when they do, it often happens behind closed doors “and does not provide the broader community with a good understanding of what is at stake and what is different in the shades of grey,” McCann said.

Issues like the modernization of the Canadian Grain Commission, the future of land use policy, research priorities, the approach to trade and market access and government’s role in plant breeding are examples of critical issues where more debate and dialogue could lead to better outcomes for all involved.

This news report prepared for National Newswatch