I notice that the Liberal opposition critic wants to heckle us on that because we do have a massive number of MPs from rural areas and he basically sits alone over there. We understand agriculture from the ground up, unlike the Liberals, and that is why it once again was a strong theme in our throne speech last fall.
Our first act as a new government in February 2006 was of course in the interests of grain producers when we accelerated the grains and oilseeds payment program. They thanked us for that.
We are investing more than $2 billion in the development of biofuels to open up new markets for our grain and oilseeds producers, to create new jobs in rural communities and to create a better environment for all Canadians.
We are working hard to deliver marketing choice to help our western wheat and barley producers capture new opportunities, to make business decisions that are right for their farms and, indeed, even to capture the opportunities that are available to other farmers across this country.
We have improved cash advance programming by doubling the interest-free portion for producers. That was another act we were able to deal with very quickly and successfully at the agriculture committee because everyone there was willing to cooperate.
We have helped the transfer of family farms to young farmers by boosting the capital gains exemption, which for many years has been asked for. The Liberal government would not do that for farmers. We chose to do that. We have moved ahead on it.
We are pressing for an ambitious outcome at the WTO for the benefit of Canada's entire agriculture sector.
The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and his provincial colleagues have agreed to move forward on new programs to support farmers. These programs will be simpler. They will be programs that our producers can take to the bank, which is also something that they have asked for over several years. They will be programs that are going to be designed by the farm community for farmers.
AgriInvest, for instance, the producer savings account, is where producers can deposit their money to their accounts and trigger matching government dollars. To help kickstart this program, the government has committed $600 million, which started flowing in January 2008. We hear the opposition crying about our programs, but in fact they are working. We have just rolled out a major one in the last month.
Ministers also agreed to move forward on AgriStability, an improved margin-based program that replaces much of the coverage previously available under the Liberals' flawed CAIS program.
Ministers agreed on the details of AgriRecovery, a disaster relief framework that ensures rapid assistance to producers hit by smaller natural disasters. We look forward to that rollout.
Farmers can expect the whole business risk suite of programs to be in place and available by April 2008. That will be good news for them. They have waited a long time for good farm programs. Indeed, they waited through the entire Liberal regime to find a decent farm program. They will now have those programs in place.
The amendments the government is proposing to the Canada Grain Act and the Canadian Grain Commission are one more illustration of our commitment to grain producers. Canada's quality assurance system for grain is a key competitive advantage for our farmers. The measures proposed in these amendments will build on that competitive advantage.
When Canada's global customers purchase Canadian grain for processing, they can count on getting the consistent quality and cleanliness they have come to expect, load after load. This world class reputation that our Canadian grains enjoy around the globe has been earned.
In large part, it has been earned through hard work, first and foremost by the hard work of our farmers, who grow some of the best grain in the world, but also by grain handling companies, research scientists and the Canadian Grain Commission.
Why is Canada so successful? Our edge in the marketplace has always been quality. This kind of quality did not happen by accident. Much of the responsibility for the quality of Canadian grain belongs with the Canadian Grain Commission and the quality assurance system that it is mandated to administer under the Canada Grain Act.
Canada's grain industry is changing. The legislative tools required to keep the industry competitive need to change accordingly.
The Canada Grain Act has not changed substantially in almost four decades. In that time, the marketplace for grain has continued to evolve. There has been more emphasis on a broader range of crops in western Canada and on such things as identity preservation, niche marketing and processing of grains in our own country.
The biofuels industry, supported by initiatives put in place by this government, has become a major customer for grains. On the previous bill we were discussing, there was some debate on that very issue.
The reform of the Western Grain Transportation Act in the mid-1990s triggered a wholesale diversification as producers opted to market their grains through livestock or to switch to other crops such as oilseeds, pulse crops and horticultural crops.
I do not think the change was bigger anywhere than it was in my own region of southwest Saskatchewan, where at one time we grew almost exclusively grains. Now there are crops growing in my region that we never thought we would grow there, such as mustard, canola, lentils, peas and chickpeas. Farmers have taken the initiative to change their operations to respond to changes in the industry.
Today, wheat accounts for one-fifth of farm receipts on the prairies. That seems substantial, but in the 1950s three-quarters of our land was producing wheat, so there has been a huge shift.
Likewise, marketing structures are evolving as well. The Wheat Board monopoly on wheat and barley was put in place by Parliament 70 years ago because of a variety of dynamics and reasons.
The system was essentially designed to collect the grain produced by small farmers at small country elevators, market it around the world as a uniform commodity and then try to divide the returns from that process among all the producers who delivered the grain.
Today, those dynamics have changed. Our approaches and structures need to change with them. We face the prospect of numerous new and growing competitors in South America, the former Soviet Union and other regions around the globe. We need to respond to those challenges.
As well, in the buying side of the market, the grain market has moved away from the commodity procurement model of the past. Now we have a situation in which large numbers of mainly private buyers select a range of quality attributes for particular market segments.
In other words, people are getting picky. They want high quality products, which Canadians can produce, but they want them delivered at a certain time in a certain way and often in a manner that farmers are best able to meet. Our present marketing system just cannot meet those challenges.
We need to continue to evolve and adapt to these new realities. That is why we are working to open up opportunities for our producers through marketing choice. On barley marketing, a majority of farmers, 62%, has asked for marketing choice. Our new government remains firm in its resolve to stand up for farmers. We remain committed to giving producers the barley marketing choice they are calling for.
The Prime Minister also remains absolutely firm on our determination to move forward with producers for marketing choice and to bring them opportunities they have not had in the past. We are committed to freeing our farmers to make marketing decisions that are right for their own businesses. We want to give producers the freedom they deserve and the marketing options they need to maximize their own profitability.
We are proposing these amendments to the Canada Grain Act to help keep our grain producers competitive by improving the regulatory environment for Canada's grain sector. The proposed change to the Canadian Grain Act and the Canada Grain Commission will help the grain sector to meet the challenges of a more competitive and market oriented sector for the 21st century.
By removing unnecessary costs from the grain handling system, the bill works to build a lower cost, more effective and innovative grain sector. We are working to reduce the regulatory burden. As all costs in the system eventually work their way to farmers, this will result in a less costly system for those same farmers.
These amendments reflect the direction of both the COMPAS report and the good work done by the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. Both reports reflect extensive consultations held with the sector in preparing those reports. In short, these amendments speak to the will and the needs of the Canadian grain industry.
I want to talk a bit about the changes that we are bringing forward.
First, inward inspection and weighing of grains will no longer be mandatory. These amendments remove the requirements for costly mandatory services that do not clearly contribute to the bottom line of farmers and the grain industry.
Currently, the Grain Commission is required to inspect and weigh each railcar or truck lot of western grain that is received by a licensed terminal and transfer elevators. The industry has been calling for change in this area for some years now on the grounds that these mandatory inspections impose costs and are not essential to ensure grain quality. I should point out this does not affect the inspection that is done at the elevator when farmers deliver their grain. We need to be clear on that. They will still be protected.
Inward inspection itself will no longer be mandatory. Instead, shippers of grain will be able to request an inspection at their discretion when they feel the benefit justifies the cost. Elevators will also be required to allow access to private inspectors when an inspection is requested.
The Canadian Grain Commission will also be authorized to provide grade arbitration if so requested by the parties to a transaction, so farmers are protected in their transactions with the grain companies.
Second, the Grain Commission will get out of the business of collecting and holding security deposits from licensed elevators and grain dealers under the producer payment security program. This program has cost a lot of money, since security is working capital tied up with no return.
Some may believe that the security program provides a free service to farmers, but every cost in the grain handling system must be paid and the program does have costs. Worse, it does not work. We all know there have been some spectacular failures in which producers found out the security system did not guarantee that they would be paid.
With the Grain Commission leaving the security business, the field will be open to farmers to decide whether they need payment security insurance if the benefits are worth the cost to them.
The field will also be open to farmers and farm organizations wanting to look at alternative methods, such as commodity clearing house models or other alternatives in which they might be interested. The government will no longer impose the cost on farmers and will no longer make the assumption that it always knows best. This brings the policy in line with other areas of agriculture and it brings the grain policy in line with what goes on in other parts of Canada.
In addition, the legislation proposes several additional amendments to modernize the act. These amendments will improve the clarity of the application and the enforcement of existing provisions. They will reflect current practices as we modernize the act. They will enhance producer protection. They will eliminate some of the provisions that are no longer applicable or no longer used.
I have a final word on the job situation at the Canadian Grain Commission.
The commission will be working with staff over the duration of the legislative process to assess the full impacts of the proposed changes. We understand this process may have a significant impact on the lives of some of the employees and are committed to working with them in a clear and transparent manner.
The proposed amendments to the Canada Grain Act support the goals of the government's growing forward framework for agriculture. They will help the grain sector continue to evolve in a direction of greater competitiveness. They will give greater freedom to farmers to manage risks. They will bring in effective regulatory oversight where it is needed.
The amendments the government is proposing contribute to building a competitive and innovative grain sector by reducing costs, by improving competitiveness, by reducing regulation and by providing choice for our producers and others in the grain sector.
The government has built a strong foundation for agriculture across Canada. We have delivered on our commitments to farmers just as we have delivered on our other commitments to Canadians. In short, we have put farmers first. This proposed legislation is just one more example of that.