Banner for A Discussion on Global Food Concerns

This past June 13, 2022, Canada held a parliamentary discussion on our planetary plight surrounding food sufficiency and food affordability.

Although the recent Russian Federation invasion of Ukraine has brought a European flavour to the conversation, talk and “action” regarding the dual aspects of food sufficiency and food affordability are as long-standing as our ancestors bartering for meat and produce at the local agora.

This Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food discussion was chaired by Kody Blois MP, elected to represent the riding of Kings-Hants, Nova Scotia, in the House of Commons of Canada as a member of the Liberal Party in the 2019 Canadian federal election.

The speakers—aka witnesses—were: Robert Saik, a professional agrologist and certified agricultural consultant; Jean-Marc Ruest, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and General Council with Richardsons International Limited, Clyde Graham, Executive Vice President with Fertilizer Canada, and; Catherine King, Vice President of Communication with Fertilizer Canada.

Richardson International is a global leader in agriculture and food processing and has been building relationships with Western Canadian growers for over 160 years.

As Ruest explained, his company is Canada’s leading handler, exporter and processor of Canadian grains and oilseeds, with a network of grain elevators and crop input facilities situated throughout the Canadian prairies and port terminal facilities in Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Thunder Bay, Hamilton, and Sorrel.

Richardsons International annually handles some 14- to 16-million tonnes of grains and oilseeds, and exports commodities to more than 50 countries.

Headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the company has been involved in agriculture and the international grain trade since 1857. And, according to Ruest, Richardsons International has witnessed and worked through world wars, the Great Depression, and, unfortunately, many significant global conflicts in the ensuing years.

When discussing food security and sufficiency, Ruest noted that there are many things to consider, and that Canada should not be looking at short-term solutions, but long-term ones.

“When we consider what Canada should be doing to address global food insecurity, it should be, in our opinion, doing so through a fundamental long-term policy lens, rather than limiting itself to an emergency relief approach.

“Canada is in a very privileged position,” he continued. “We produce far more agricultural products that we consume and we’re able to export this excess production to countries that are unable to meet their consumption needs. We’ve developed a global reputation as a reliable supplier of high quality agricultural products, and this advantage has created significant economic benefits for Canada, and is regularly identified as a sure way to accelerate Canadian economic growth.”

With that descriptor, Ruest stated that Canada needs to do its part to address global food insecurity. But what exactly does that entail?

He provided an easy solution, and then an even better one.

“The simple answer should be produce as much as we can, and export as much as we can as quickly as we can. Not only would that address an urgent global need, it would also be beneficial to Canada’s economy,” he related.

“However, as obviously beneficial as a strategy could be, we have struggled to adopt the policies required to transform those intentions into action. In fact, I would submit that in many instances, policies are being pursued that run contrary to the objective,” explained Ruest.

He said that if Canada were to simply produce as much as it can, it would need to encourage development and adoption of such technologies that would allow the nation to increase production via a regulatory system grounded in science rather than socio-political preferences.

But, he noted, science “in the regulation of agriculture and more specifically with respect to the development, registration and use of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides—all tools that are critical to a farmer’s ability to increase production”—is under threat.

Ruest pointed to the EU’s current Farm to Fork strategy—a seemingly more organic farming policy—as one that will actually reduce crop production while increasing the global cost of both grains and oilseeds, which would only add to global food security concerns already being tabled.

To counter such policies, Ruest said that “Canada—and other countries on whom the world relies to meet their food supply needs—must immediately and unwaveringly commit themselves to science as being the foundation on which agricultural production, regulation and international trade will be based.”

Ruest said that Canada needs to ensure its ability to move products such as grains and oilseeds through its ports and into the hands of its international customers in a timely manner, and noted that Canada has had its fair share of issues doing so over the past few years.

“Rail service has been an ongoing issue exacerbated by washouts, fires, blockades and labour disruptions,” he said. “We have all witnessed how any one of these factors can effectively shut down the Canadian supply chain, including the exports of grains and oilseeds for extended periods of time.”

He also mentioned that Canada’s ability to operate terminals and load vessels has also been undermined in key ports like Vancouver, pointing at infrastructure insufficiency as one issue.

He wondered that if we have such difficulty in moving goods from within our country now when international customers need our products, how will Canada supply them with more crops in the future?

While not offering specific solutions, Ruest did point the way. “A significant part of the answer depends on our collective commitment to addressing those challenges head-on, through a combination of regulatory reforms and increase in capacity, limiting disruptions, particularly those not caused by natural disasters, and investment in critical infrastructure.”

Robert Saik, a professional agrologist, spoke next. Saik via his holding company Saik Management Group Inc., facilitates the PowerFARM peer group and provides leadership to several advisor and company boards. He was recognized as the 2006 Agrologist of the Year and the 2014 Canadian Agri-Marketer of the Year. A Canadian with 100 percent Ukrainian heritage, he started his career on a mixed farm in Alberta, and with a diverse agricultural background, including farming in Uganda, cattle, ag retail, fertilizer manufacturing, distribution, marketing, consulting, data, ag tech, robotics, he currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer of AGvisorPRO, a connectivity and resource platform for agriculture.

Speaking to the session from San Sebastian, Spain, he also provided his view on the global resiliency of agriculture.

“My concern from a standpoint of Canadian resiliency is that far too often we see ideology driving the agenda with respect to agriculture—Farm to Fork was already mentioned here,” said Saik. “The objectives in the EU, under Farm to Fork are blanketed at 50 percent reduction in pesticides, 50 percent reduction in antibiotics for animals, and that 25 percent of the European Union would be organic production.

“It’s common knowledge—it’s not rocket science that organic production creates a drag on yield, so you have to put more land into production.”

He explained that Canada needs to be wary about ideologies—be it political or environmental—driving how national agricultural policy is formulated and put into place. Agricultural decisions, said Saik, must be output-based. He cited the poor policy decisions of Sri Lanka as an example.

“Sri Lanka’s policy to go 100 percent organic last April (2022) has been a disaster, and was the first domino in pushing that country to basically political and financial ruin,” Saik opined. “What we need in Canada right now, is close collaboration with those policymakers to understand that agriculture must be output-based and the three keys to sustainability and agriculture.

“We need to concentrate on soil health, water-use efficiency, and greenhouse gas balance—and when I speak of balance in greenhouse gas, it is not a blanket reduction in 30 percent of nitrogen fertilizer across Canada. That’s not the answer.”

The answer, according to Saik, is for policy makers to recognize the new technologies that are being adopted by Canadian ag producers.

He pointed to such technologies as: slow release nitrogen fertilizers; variable rate application of fertilizer; split application of fertilizers; and soil testing as key examples of how Canadian farmers are already using available technologies to reduce GHG emissions while establishing higher yielding crops.

He said that these are the types of sciences that make our Canadian farmers some of the most efficient farmers in the world.

While there is always room for improvement, Saik proudly pointed out that “our nitrogen-use efficiency is amongst the highest in the world.”

Yes, he acknowledged, Canada needs to produce more, that it needs more canola and wheat, but “the world needs more Canada.”

He concluded his opening remarks with a tip-of-the-hat to the recent Health Canada recognition that “genetic engineering or gene editing is sound science and that it needs to move further and faster around the world.”

Fertilizer Canada is an industry association representing Canadian manufacturers, wholesalers and retail distributors of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash fertilizers. As such, Catherine King spoke of her association’s view on the dual issues of food sufficiency and food affordability.

“In Canada, the fertilizer industry contributes over $23 billion annually to the economy, and over $12 billion to GDP (gross domestic product),” she began, adding that “over 76,000 people are employed directly or indirectly by the industry.”

Not just a local economy, King said that Canada is important to how the world feeds its population.

“Twelve percent of the world’s fertilizer supplies comes from Canada.” And that “as a major export industry, we supply fertilizer products to over 75 countries.”

With global population expected to add an addition two billion people by 2050, she said that global agricultural production will need to increase by up to 70 percent in order to meet the demand of an always hungry world.

But, she noted, “This will not be possible without fertilizer.”

She pointed out that “Higher yields are necessary to meet the growing global demand for Canadian crops which has been further echoed in the federal government’s target of $75 billion in agri food exports by 2025.

“Geopolitical turmoil in the world, most recently the war in Ukraine, adds to the strain on food supply. In response to the war’s impact on Russian potash supplies, our member companies in the potash sector have expanded their production, adding millions of additional tonnage to global supplies.”

King said that Canada, along with its fertilizer and foods, is also an exporter of innovation, knowledge and best practices for fertilizer use.

“Nutrient stewardship is a Canadian-developed innovation,” she explained, “and for more than a decade we have worked with farmers, the industry, the research community, governments and conservation groups to implement these best management practices to optimize nutrient uptake and crop production while reducing environmental costs.”

She explained how Fertilizer Canada has worked to become a global standard in working with other nations in the field of ag technology, citing the example of a partnership with the Co-operative Development Foundation of Canada to deliver the 4R Solution project in Africa for the past three years.

The 4R Solution is a program conceived to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability for over 80,000 smallholder farmers (50 percent women) in developing countries including Ethiopia, Ghana, and Senegal.

“The concept is simple,” continued King. “Apply the right source of nutrient at the right time in the right place and you will get the best results.”

She added: “Fertilizer management practices need to balance economic, social and environmental disseminations of sustainability. Doing this requires a fair and predictable regulatory environment that supports programs like the 4Rs, and continued innovation within the sector.

“Fertilizer is a critical piece to ensure food security at home and around the world.”

King opined that for the Canadian fertilizer industry to be able to continue playing a pivotal role in food security, the Federal Government must continue to and enhance collaboration with the industry.

“Working together is the best path forward for achieving our mutual goals,” stated King. “We also ask for support in raising awareness and increasing uptake in the 4R’s to help farmers optimize their fertilizer inputs for strong, healthy crops and to minimize their environmental outcomes.

“Our industry has worked hard to ensure farmers and growers have the critical input of fertilizer for their crops and we need practical, consistent, and a predictable regulatory environment for members to make long-term plans and investment.

“Canada must be seen as a reliable trading partner, and the government must work with industry to ensure there are no disruptions to the supply chain, so that our products will get to our farmer customers, and they can grow hearty healthy crops to feed the world,” summed up King.

Taking questions from others, Saik offered his view on the limits of farmers listening to the demands of the marketplace as a driver in how Canadian ag works.

“There’s always a trade-off in agriculture and ultimately it comes down to signals being sent by the marketplace to farmers,” began Saik. “CPS wheat, for example, is mostly utilized for ethanol production versus hard red spring wheat, which is mostly used for human consumption.

“If we want to have a higher level of human consumption, I think the signals can be sent through the marketplace fairly clearly.

“If the policy is that we should have more biofuel and (that) we need to produce more crops to go into the biofuel sector, that definitely is a signal (that should be) put out to farmers through government policy,” Saik said.

“I think you have a balance here of market signals from the world marketplace looking for food and an alternate signal that comes from policy that’s generated around climate initiatives.”

Ruest agreed, noting that there is now a global demand for grains and oilseeds to be utilized as fuel. “(It) obviously adds a new consumption source and that can only have an impact on price.

“The market will sort out where it ought to go, and food should win,” Ruest continued. “People need to eat, and so there would naturally be that increase. If production does not increase, you add a consumptive demand then the price is going to increase. So, the solution to that is to increase production and it goes to end point.”

Right now, there is no magic elixir to solve food sufficiency and food affordability, but at least by continued discussion and forward-thinking science and government policy, hopefully sooner rather than later, one will be forthcoming.

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