Mr. Speaker, I move that the fifth report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food presented on Tuesday, June 11, be concurred in.
Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to talk about the report which has been submitted by the agricultural committee. We did a lot of work on this. It was tabled on June 11. First, I would like to thank the staff members who travelled with us and who spent so much time working with us, particularly our researchers J.D. and Suzanne for their work on this report and with our committee.
Last fall we talked in committee about travelling across Canada to hear what Canadian producers had to say about agriculture. We decided that we would hear from as many people as we possibly could. There was some pressure on us to hear only farm organizations but some of us insisted, and the committee agreed, that we hear from as many producers as possible so we could get as wide a spectrum of information on what was going on in the agricultural part of Canada.
I thank the chairman for supporting that suggestion. We heard a lot of witnesses. In western Canada we heard over 100 witnesses in a two day span and what we heard was very interesting. We travelled across the country from Springside to Kamloops, from Brandon to Grand Bend, from Miramichi to Vulcan, Alberta. Presentations were made on virtually every agricultural issue. We heard from people involved in 4-H. We also heard from fruit growers, organic farmers, cattlemen, processors and young people who were trying to get into farming.
When we decided to put this project together and pursue it, I questioned whether we would listen to what people had to say. I have been very skeptical over the years of a lot of the work that has been done in government. A lot of the committees have travelled around and supposedly conferred and consulted with people but then it seems like nothing gets done, or worse, the committee has not listened to the people.
I was happy that early on committee members decided that they would report what they heard from the farmers and producers across Canada. We decided that we would make an effort to keep this report from becoming biased so it would have no relevance to agricultural producers. Overall I think the report has very good balance to it. I guess none of us agree totally with all the recommendations of the report but there are some very good ones. Because there were no minority reports submitted, I would suggest that we have a good report here and one which the government should look at seriously and implement as much as possible. It is important that we express the interests of farmers whether we agree with them or not.
I have laid out some excellent recommendations. As I have said, we did not agree with all of them but farmers made it very clear to us that there were a number of things they wanted. I will spend a few minutes talking about those. First, I want to take a few minutes to talk about the recommendation we think is the most important and which would have the biggest and most positive impact in western Canada, the area from where I come.
Recommendation 14 of the report reads:
Whereas additional on-farm activities and local value-added processing are an excellent way to give farmers more influence in pricing, the Committee recommends that the board of directors of the Canadian Wheat Board authorize, on a trial basis, a free market for the sale of wheat and barley, and that it report to this Committee on the subject.
The majority of farmers in western Canada have wanted this for a long time. From our perspective and from the perspective of others, including the Canadian Wheat Board, none of the other recommendations are as far reaching in consequences as is recommendation 14, and that is absolutely true, because it has the potential to do a lot of positive things for western Canada, things that have not happened for decades.
Recommendation 14 is a tremendous breakthrough in a number of ways. The Alliance has had the position for years that we need a voluntary market to give our farmers some extra opportunities. I was excited to see that the members from the other party, with the exception of one member to be fair, were on side as well. Everyone agreed with this and we think the recommendation is a good one.
We support this recommendation because so many producers have asked us for the opportunity to market their own grains in western Canada. They told us that there were a couple of reasons why they wanted to do this. One was they wanted to be treated equally across Canada. I will talk a little later about some of the differences between Ontario, Quebec and western Canada. However we clearly heard in western Canada and in Ontario that producers wanted to be treated fairly and that they were not afraid of what would happen if they were treated fairly.
A second opportunity that the implementation of recommendation 14 would bring is that it would give people the opportunity to sell into niche markets. A number of farmers have been in contact with me. I have lived beside them and talked to them. They really want to pursue some identity preserve sales.
They would like to make contracts with companies and even other countries where they would grow small lots of grains and then sell container loads or a few carloads. A group of farmers could perhaps go together and make the deal to sell these identity preserves, these special grains, and receive an advantage from the market by doing that.
Right now the entire system prevents that from happening or discourages it from happening. Farmers are becoming impatient with that because they want to do that. They have already developed a lot of the contacts but are not allowed to carry through with the process.
People would like a fair and uninterrupted opportunity to begin to process their own products. We still grow more wheat on the prairies even though the percentage of it is going down because of our marketing system. We grow more wheat than any other product. Farmers have constantly told us that they would like an opportunity to value add to that and to do something with that.
I found it interesting when we met with a Chinese agriculture delegation about a month ago. The head of the delegation was the chair of the agriculture committee from China. One of the things he indicated was that they were going to take their land out of low value production and put it into crops that they can begin to value add to. He suggested that they were going to buy cheap raw bulk product from somewhere else. They were willing to do that.
It was fascinating to me that the Chinese have now moved ahead of western Canadians in terms of what they are going to do with their land. They insist that they value add to it. I am told that in 1995, for example, the Chinese had absolutely no processing capabilities for soybeans in their country. By last year they processed 14 million tonnes of soybeans in China. They have made an extensive commitment to benefit their economy by doing that.
In western Canada there has often been an illusion that China would be a threat to us if we were able to market our own grain. One of the highlights for me on this whole trip was being able to talk to the Ontario wheat board directors about how they have set up the operation in Ontario. They are excited about it. They have six marketing choices within that board.
One of them is direct marketing where they are allowed to sell a certain percentage of the total production of wheat into the market. It is 20% of the total production in Ontario. The farmers themselves voted to raise that to 30% and they told me they expect it will be 100% within the next few years. The 20% is on a first-come, first-served basis. They can book a certain number of tonnes if they want and then sell it into the market. Farmers are required to use up the exemption they have. If they do not, they have to return it to the board.
They seem to be happy with that. They are excited about the opportunities and also excited about the processing opportunities that are developing in their areas and rural constituencies. The producers themselves in Ontario have voted, and are actually allowed to vote, to move toward more freedom in their marketing. That is something that has prevented the western Canadian producers so far.
It was also interesting to hear Quebec producers talk about their opportunity to sell and export their wheat without interference. The wheat board tells us there is a requirement for Quebec farmers to get licences from the wheat board. In talking to people there is no evidence that is taking place or being enforced.
The questions that farmers are asking are: Do we want our communities to grow? Do we want to have a chance to succeed? Many people tell me they are tired of the agriculture community continually going back to the government asking for funding again and again. We must be able to give farmers an opportunity to move away from having to do that.
I was looking in one of the local newspapers which had a special article called “Forty years ago”. There was a picture of an MP who was going to Ottawa to ask for money for agriculture funding. This has gone on long enough. There is another way. We do not have to keep going down the road we have been on for so long.
There are a number of other exemptions that are given out. The wheat board gives exemptions for things like kamut for some of the organic products. There are exemptions in the Creston area of B.C. There are exemptions from the wheat board's application in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec.
To the credit of government members they listened and saw this was an important opportunity for western Canada. They were probably under a lot of pressure because the minister responsible for the wheat board seems to be absolutely uninterested in changing. He is not willing to change the wheat board. That is the position he has taken.
Members of the committee heard farmers consistently say they wanted some choice and they saw this as an important opportunity. I must thank the members of the committee for having the courage to talk to producers of all stripes and then support this recommendation. Others in the government have not been this visionary or willing to accept the word of the people when they have heard them say that.
There is an easy way to implement recommendation 14. The Canadian Wheat Board gives no cost buy backs regularly. It gives them to Ontario and Quebec farmers. It can do it with a stroke of a pen. It would be simple for them to give Western Canadian farmers no cost buy back licences that other producers in the country receive. We could set that up and have the trial basis that is called for in the recommendation.
Farmers must have some options and more opportunities. The government's farm program will not be a solution. We hear different sets of numbers being used but it becomes evident that the additional money will not be enough to make a major difference in western Canada. It is starting to look like this new APF is more of a public relations program than it is an agriculture policy.
There is a lot of PR involved. The consultation process was highly advertised but was a total disaster. The government talked about consulting with people but it has not chosen to do that. The different parts of the agriculture plan seem to be bringing in a lot more bureaucracy, regulation and cost to farmers rather than helping them out.
There were other good recommendations in the report as well. I would like to speak to some of them. One called for all programs to be available to all farmers. The committee had some discussion about that but we felt it was only fair.
Another recommendation suggested that there could be some improvements to the NISA program. We need to have some improvements there. It is seen by most witnesses as a good program and one that should be expanded. We called for stronger government involvement in it in terms of funding and more flexibility for farmers who want to be able to access the program.
I have always thought that the crop insurance program is one that we could make a cornerstone of our agricultural policy. The committee called upon it to be more flexible and effective with increased funding to give it more realistic coverage.
Recommendation number two called for the establishment of a new disaster fund that could grow, but would be capped at $1 billion. It would accommodate the natural disasters that we see coming up every so often, such as drought and flooding. Flooding in Manitoba occurs regularly and would be the type of emergency that would be applicable to this disaster fund.
The committee had a number of recommendations calling for tax incentives to help rural development through value added processing and tax incentives to aid biofuels and renewable fuels. Tax incentives were recommended for agri-tourism, which is a popular, growing industry that needs to be developed.
Tax incentives were recommended for inter-generational transfers. We heard a number of times how important it is that we set things up so that the next generation can move into farming and do it successfully. We heard about the need for some tax incentives for co-operatives, allowing them to capitalize more efficiently and also for co-operative and other corporate structures that farmers would use on their farms.
We called for adequate infrastructure spending, especially for roads. That is an issue in my home province. A number of people in my area have said that if the government would just give them the road structure they need they could develop the economy. They could be successful if they had the infrastructure the government could provide.
The committee called for a number of areas for regulatory protection. These include protecting access to producer cars, which are important in western Canada. They include setting organic standards with industry. The government needs to set one standard for organic products. We need clearer transparency in our international trade agreements so that we can have a little more efficiency in them and the government can be more effective in dealing with these trade agreements and trade disputes.
There was a call, and we heard this regularly, that we need more control over the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It established a serious presence on the prairies setting up a number of science centres. We have biologists all over the place and they are taking their work too seriously in that they began to interfere with RMs. They have been extending their influence to even things like irrigation ditches. There needs to be some more regulatory control over the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
We called for regulations to deal with the ongoing concerns regarding the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, things like the appointment of an ombudsman, a performance audit, funding for a research and analysis program similar to the United States to approve minor use products and to co-ordinate our activities with the United States.
There was a call for compensation for farmers. We had a lot of debate the other day over Bill C-5 about the compensation in the species at risk bill. The Alliance has taken a strong position that the call for compensation needed to be directly in the legislation. The government chose to say that it would give us the regulations that at some point may give us compensation of some sort. That is not good enough.
The agriculture committee called for compensation to farmers for any kind of environmental measures that are affecting agriculture. The Alliance continues to take the position that the compensation needs to be at fair market value. That is only fair to the people who are being affected by these measures.
We called for some funding to agriculture education and training, particularly to universities, veterinary colleges and faculties of veterinary medicine. We heard that they have been underfunded and are having trouble keeping their accreditation so that they will be able to work with the United States, and work on a continental basis in terms of animal safety. That is important to them so we have called for an increase in funding to allow them to keep their accreditation.
We called for funding on public education on foods, farm safety programs and education for farmers about environmental farm programs which in parts of the country have now become a reality. In other parts of the country people want nothing to do with them. We called for compensation of fair and reasonable amounts. The Canadian Alliance would call that market value.
One of our recommendations called for funding for trade injury damage, for trade subsidization penalties. We would like $1.3 billion committed to that. That is a figure that the farm organizations have used fairly often. The unfortunate thing is that the government is messing this up. It has not consulted properly and does not seem to be getting much co-operation.
We have provincial governments that are furious at some of the agriculture organizations. The agriculture organizations perhaps have been making agreements or decisions apart from consulting some of the people with whom they should be working. It is another example of the federal government's policy regarding agriculture where it tries to divide and conquer, to split up the organizations and provinces so they are never on the same page and it allows the government to get out of fulfilling its responsibilities.
The government is now heading toward putting all of the farm programs into one package so the disaster relief, safety net programs and trade dispute money seems to be all going into one package. We suggested that is not appropriate because the U.S. farm bill has been passed and targets farmers specifically. There needs to be a trade injury package that deals with that situation. The government will not get away with throwing all that money into one package and then trying to pretend that it is new money.
The estimates for this year are actually $670 million less in safety net funding than was spent last year. The bureaucrats told us that it was because we spend some in estimates and some in supplementaries. The reality is that when the numbers are added the totals that are projected right now are $670 million less than the government spent last year on the safety net funding. We are pointing out to people that the first $700 million of new money that would be going into agriculture brings the funding up to last year's levels.
I am not so sure that the agriculture policy framework is not on its way to a wreck. I mentioned before that there will be a lot more regulations on farmers. There is more bureaucracy and the government is trying to get out of supporting farmers with that program.
I want to return to recommendation 14. I want to talk about some of the consequences of opening up the wheat board and the positive things that could happen.
My office over the last few months, and the young lady who is working for me as an intern for the summer, has done a lot of work in the last couple of months on this project. We went to Saskatchewan with a survey. We set three primary goals in our survey. The first was to provide a precise analysis of the value added crop processors in our part of the world. We interviewed a number of the specialty crop processors to find out what kind of economic benefits they bring to their communities.
We went through the current wheat board and flour milling capacity situation in western Canada. We tried to estimate how well the specialty crop producers were doing in Saskatchewan and extrapolated that to determine if we could do the same things with wheat, what the results would be in western Canada. We surveyed specialty crop processors and looked at the current processing and wheat milling that exists in western Canada. Then we tried to look at the potential, what could really happen in western Canada.
We found that we could have an impact of up to $1 billion in Saskatchewan if the wheat processing was opened up to allow local communities to do their work. If the same number of communities put up processing plants as there are now in specialty crops, the benefit to western Canada would be in the neighbourhood of $1 billion plus.
I was very disturbed at the wheat board's reaction in the press release it put out. It could have looked at this positively. Canadian farmers have told us consistently that 60% to 80% of western Canadian farmers want to open up the Canadian Wheat Board. They want to have some options.
Earlier on the wheat board was looking at this. It seems to have retrenched which is unfortunate.
I look forward to the government taking the initiative on this issue. It has been nine years now that it has shown no movement on it. I would love to see the government take the initiative on this recommendation, move forward, give western Canadian farmers the opportunity to do some niche market selling, to do some value added, and bring prosperity to our dying communities. It would give western Canadian farmers the same opportunity that eastern Canadian farmers have had. It would give them the same opportunity to have that type of success.