Banner for Overview of the Canada Grains Council Roundtable

While the world certainly has its collective hands full dealing with issues relating to health, war, politics et al, the Canada Grains Council held a roundtable discussion on June 1, 2022, to ensure the Canadian industry continues its leadership role—an effort to ensure our nation does not become a contributor to global issues while protecting our ag sector.

And yet, there’s still a chance our problems become global ones.

Some 54 organizations and associations representing the best of Canada and its grains industry participated virtually in the roundtable from across the country, along with government representatives from Ag Canada, Health Canada, PMRA, CFIA, Transport Canada and CTA, to discuss the issues at hand to avoid long-term repercussions.

The issues examined during the roundtable were:

  • Plant Breeding Innovation update—urging the CFIA to complete much-needed guidance as Health Canada has recently done;
  • Crop Protection developments—both home and abroad;
  • EU Farm to Fork panel—examining how EU policies could be forced upon other nations, including Canada, and what we can do to avoid it;
  • Rail Service matters—can we avoid being shunted to the back of the line by the two major railway operators?;
  • Port-related issues—how to prevent grain customers from being victimized by a monopoly;
  • Environmental Policy topics—a refresher on clean fuels regulations and policy, carbon pricing, and fertilizers;
  • CRSC update—information on the development of a Voluntary Code of Practice for grains;
  • E-Phyto and Phytosanitary updates.

If it sounds like a lot of things are of concern to the grains industry, you would be correct. The roundtable was, per Tyler Bjornson, Executive Vice President of the Canada Grains Council, enacted to keep on top of things to prevent matters from spiralling.

While it would be foolhardy to suggest that these are the only issues facing the Canadian grain sector—weather, being the chief one—they are at least the ones for which a resolution can be hoped for with continued effort by the Council and its members, and government.

Originally, the Grains Roundtable was hosted in conjunction with Ag Canada. While Ag Canada set out to overhaul its structure of its meetings, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, effectively scuttling its best-laid plans.

“To ensure the grains sector would have a voice on pertinent issues of the day, the Canada Grains Council decided it needed a forum on grain-specific issues regarding government change of policies and regulations,” explained Bjornson.

“The roundtable is a way for the grains sector to keep momentum going on our issues,” he continued. “Just like anything in life, if there’s no urgency, then things get pushed to the side—and we’d like to have a roundtable every six months to keep the momentum going.”

This article will look at most of the discussed issues, with commentary supplied to the CAAR Communicator from Bjornson.

Plant Breeding Innovation

A recent announcement by Health Canada has placed Canada on equal footing with other nations with regards to gene-editing within the ag industry, noted Bjornson. If there’s no foreign DNA added to a new crop variety, Health Canada indicated it would treat the developer in the exact same manner as it would a conventional breeder.

Ever since mankind began domesticating crops via farming, they have long sought to create a better product. This has made our food safer and easier to grow, while at the same time spawned the growth of a global seed industry.

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door—an adage, but a valid comparison for the ag industry. Yes, the goal is to sell crops at a premium by making them more appealing to customers, but it’s also to provide a crop that lasts longer after harvest, grows more effectively regardless of intense weather, pest pressures or diseases. One small tweak to a gene can mean the difference between a successful crop or total failure.

With regards to gene-editing, it’s doing all the above—taking what is there within the crop and making it hardier, tastier, while offering more yield, and better resistance to disease and natural elements.

At the roundtable, participants providing their input on this subject were: Neil Strand, Section Head, Evaluation Division, Health Canada; David Svab, Director, Animal Feed & Biologics Division, CFIA; Linda Webster, Director, Plant Production Division, CFIA; Krista Thomas, Vice President Seed Innovation CGC, and; Ian Affleck, Vice President, Plant Biotechnology, CropLife Canada. “The news from Health Canada has been spectacular,” stated Bjornson. “There have been many strides in gene-editing and in gene-editing regulations around the world.

“The formal clarification from Health Canada encourages innovation with agronomic and nutritional varieties, and helps provide global market access,” he said, adding, “We (Canada) were at least five years behind in updating our regulatory system. Now we are catching up, but we still need the CFIA to publish their guidance, as Health Canada has done.”

For those worried about the wording in Health Canada’s gene-editing announcement regarding companies “self-identifying” when they utilize gene-editing techniques, Bjornson said it’s overblown.

“Companies, regardless of the industry—if you have a new type of cement, for example, they still let the government know what’s in it because that’s how we do business in Canada,” he related. “Companies always self-identify, even in gene editing.”

Bjornson explained that gene editing provides opportunities for research and development for Canada, allowing for the development of even more opportunities for newer advancements for crops. Canola exists in Canada today because of plant breeding, but it took decades to develop. What will Canada’s next canola be, thanks to gene editing?

For those against using science to advance agriculture—to “go back to the land”—Bjornson was effusive in stating that “we (Canada) want to progress.”

He noted that wheat can be a difficult plant to manipulate. While strides were certainly made back in colonial Canada to breed newer, hardier wheat plants, Bjornson said that those efforts took generations to achieve.

And, while there is nothing wrong with continuing that same practice today, gene-editing technologies will allow for crop progress to occur quickly—more in line with the demands of a modern Canadian culture. Gene editing can speed up the making of a new wheat variety by a decade, for example.

“Gene-editing is by no means a silver bullet,” intoned Bjornson, “but it will help Canada move the needle to unlock the potential of the ag sector.”

As an aside, on June 27, 2022, Bioceres of Argentina, revealed that the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration) had reacted positively on its drought-resistant genetically-modified HB4 wheat, which will help in its efforts for commercialization in America.

“The FDA has concluded that it has no further doubts about the safety of HB4 wheat and that it does not raise issues that would require FDA pre-marketing review or approval,” said Bioceres via a statement.

“Completion of this voluntary consultation program is a critical step towards commercial approval in the United States.”

The HB4 wheat will still require approval from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture).

Like agencies in Canada, the FDA examines and assesses the safety of new food products to people prior to entering market. The USDA provides assurances that genetically modified crop will not provide a hazard to other crops.

Crop Protection Development

This discussion on crop protection covered the bases regarding fertilizers and herbicides.

CAAR strongly believes in our nation’s requirement to continue to advocate internationally for MRL harmonization based on modern science. We must not move away from the standards set internationally.

Our sector depends on international trade, and harmonized MRLs are a key to facilitating export of all our Canadian agricultural commodities.

MRLs have an impact on the way agri-retailers do business, how farmers grow, and how the country as a whole is perceived internationally in trade.

Speakers and topics for this section were: Peter Brander, Executive Director, PMRA on the PMRA’s current issues and activities; a water monitoring program update by Janice Villeneuve, Section Head, Environmental Assessment Directorate, PMRA and Nevin Rosaasen, Sustainability & Government Relations Lead, Alberta Pulse Growers; and an examination of international activities presented by Gord Kurbis, Vice President Crop Protection CGC, and Emilie Bergeron, Vice President Chemistry, CropLife Canada.

Bjornson said that the general public—both here and abroad—seems to believe that many OECD countries have loose regulations regarding pesticides, “but that’s just foolish, it’s not reality.”

Reducing pesticide use, he stated, could ultimately reduce crop yield—and that’s not something the world needs, especially with food security and food inflation being something nations are trying to control, not exacerbate.

“For Canada’s sustainable production, innovation in crop inputs is a necessity,” Bjornson explained. “It should be a goal to produce more food on the same farm footprint farmers already have in place.”

Gord Kurbis had previously explained to the Communicator magazine in a previous interview that: “Crop protection is getting more and more restrictive around the world.” He was referencing the EU having moved away from a science-based approach to ag governance replacing it with a zero tolerance for fertilizers.

EU Farm to Fork

Without a doubt, most of all MRL-related attention from around the planet revolves around the European Union’s (EUs) Farm to Fork Strategy, which aims to “reduce the environmental and climate impact of primary production whilst ensuring fair economic returns for farmers.”

The EU Farm to Fork panel at the Roundtable featured Robert Hunter, Chief Operating Officer with CropLife International; Lynn Fortin, Agriculture Counsellor with Mission of Canada to the EU; Corrado Finardi, Regulatory Affairs Manager for COCERAL; and the aforementioned Gord Kurbis, Vice President Crop Protection, CGC.

Bjornson said that Canada needs to do a better job of convincing the EU crowd that our crop production is among the best performers globally when it comes to sustainable production.

“We need to make sure that the EU isn’t too prescriptive and dictate how we and other nations produce our food as we have different climates, different approaches and different needs,” he said.

Bjornson added that the Canada Grains Council is keeping a close eye on the EU platform and trying to influence rules to be based on performance and outcomes on sustainability, rather than prescriptive rules on how grain production should be done that can be swayed by misinformation and perception of how our food ought to be produced.”

Rail Service Matters

Within this topic, Mark Hemmes, President of Quorum Corporation and its Grain Monitor open data system discussed the rail service within Canada.

An overview of the use of “new” rail measures was delivered by the Canadian Transportation Agency’s Allan Burnside, Senior Director Analysis & Regulatory Affairs, and Ryan Dallaway, Team Leader, Senior Economist Advisor. As well, Tamara Rudge, Director General, Surface Transportation Policy, Transport Canada spoke on the Modernized Transportation Act.

The takeaway—it ain’t good.

Faced with a monopoly of rail lines by the Big 2 of CN and CP, the roundtable acknowledged that the ag sector is at the mercy of the transportation giants.

Bjornson cited the performance failures of this past January through March when the ag sector had battled drought and was already down 30 percent of production.

“Even with that, railways were meeting less than 50 percent of railcars demanded by the sector in numerous weeks this winter.”

The industry is concerned that the Canadian rail industry will be unable to move grain through to ports for international buyers or to national customers when the demand is required.

“It’s a massive problem that will make Canada seem like an unreliable partner internationally. If we can’t get our products to customers when they want it, they’ll look to a provider who can,” explained Bjornson.

He pointed out that the highest demand—and best prices—for Canadian crops is in the December through March window, and the railways’ inability to work for the ag industry in that timeframe hurts Canadian farmers.

Unlike the trucking or shipping industry, for example, there are no demurrage or contract penalties applicable to the rail industry for failing to deliver a customer’s goods on time—a fact that galled membership of Canada Grains Council.

“There’s nothing to hold railways accountable,” lamented Bjornson, “because the railways are monopolies in their own right, they have complete control over the system.”

In other words, if you have a complaint, you are welcome to go elsewhere—except there is no elsewhere to go to.

Bjornson pointed to the December 2021 flooding in BC as being an acceptable reason for railway delays, but that the railways also had a profound lack of railway workers and locomotive power to catch-up in time lost.

“They run at 100 percent capacity, and have very little ability to recover when issues creep up every single year,” he continued.

Many participants voiced concerns that the industry and government need to apply more scrutiny on the railways and create an ag plan that works for Canadian farmers, who alongside grain shippers bear the brunt of the costs when the network fails to perform.”

Port Problems

After goods are delivered by rail or truck to a Canadian port destination, it is shipped out to customers globally.

There are over 550 port facilities in Canada—17 of which are Canada Port Authorities because of strategic, regional, national, continental, and international importance.

The roundtable heard commentary from Greg Northey, Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Pulse Canada on the container crunch, and a discussion on issues surrounding port modernization by Wade Sobkowich, Executive Director, WGEA (Western Grain Elevator Association) , an association of grain businesses operating in Canada, which collectively handles over 90 percent of Canada’s bulk grain exports.

The main issue discussed at the Roundtable meeting revolved around the Port of Vancouver, stewarded by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority. This is Canada’s largest port, and is the fourth-largest port in North America by tonnes of cargo, helping create trade between Canada and over 170 world economies.

Unfortunately, according to the commentary at the Roundtable, the Port makes decisions that can at times negatively affect its customer base—and it’s because of the monopoly created by the Canada Marine Act.

While not saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely, the Roundtable did point out that especially at the Port of Vancouver, decisions are made regarding rent increases and additional fees, lease renewal issues, labour challenges, jurisdictional issues, infrastructure setting priorities, and land development challenges—and customers have no way to challenge a decision.

Bjornson said that when the Port of Vancouver makes a decision, because there is no adequate appeal process in place, grain customers really have no recourse.

According to the WGEA, it considers Canadian port authorities as legal monopolies that maintain its own discretionary decision-making power over the marine gateways, a power that if wielded improperly, negatively affects the economies it serves.

“There needs to be an overhaul of the Canadian port authority governance system that includes adding active users onto the decision-making board to allow customers a point of contact to gain a voice,” explained Bjornson.

Environmental Policy

The Clean Fuel Regulation was a pillar of the 2016 Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, explained Chris Vervaet, Executive Director of the Canadian Oilseed Processors Association at the Roundtable.

The CFR mandates fossil fuel suppliers to lower the carbon intensity (CI) of fossil fuels—with a 15 percent lower carbon intensity (CI) by the year 2030.

Increasing the use of biofuels were among the options identified to help lower the CI of fossil fuels. According to Vervaet, this supports investments in biofuel production/agri-processing, increases demand for sustainable crops like canola and corn; and reduces GHG emissions from transportation fuels. It’s a win-win-win.

Others who discussed under this topic include: a carbon pricing update presented by Judy Meltzer, Director General, Carbon Market Bureau, ECCC; and an update on fertilizer emissions policy and activities from Cassandra Cotton, Vice President Policy & Programs, Fertilizer Canada.

As an aside to the Roundtable, on June 30, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States said the US Clean Air Act does not give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to regulate planet-warming emissions from power plants.

As a counter, the Swiss company Climeworks had days earlier announced it had broken ground on a second direct air capture (DAC) facility in Iceland to remove gigatons of carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere on a yearly basis by the year 2050.

Right now, this second DAC plant—known as Mammoth—will have the initial capacity to capture 36,000 tons of carbon dioxide yearly and eventually be expanded into its 2050 goal

If successful, however, a multitude of such DAC plants will be required to make an impact on current GHG levels. But it’s a good start.

As noted in the Roundtable discussion, talk without action is meaningless, but plans are afoot to put forth the complaints and demands of the Canadian grain industry once again on the front burner of our federal politics.

While positive resolutions are hoped for and expected, the Roundtable participants understand that change will take time—just hopefully not time at the expense of the Canadian agricultural industry.


New Fertilizer Regulations Amendments

The Fertilizers Regulations that came into effect on October 23, 2020, have recently undergone significant amendments. The “new” regulations contain a transitional provision that allows regulated parties to comply with either the former (“old”) or the current (“new”) regulations until October 26, 2023, to give industry an adjustment period to the new requirements, and exhaust the old stock in the retail chain. Once the transition period is over, all products found in the Canadian marketplace must comply with requirements of the “new” regulations; those that do not will be considered in contravention of the Fertilizers Regulations.

While the amendments introduce new provisions that reduce regulatory burden on industry, The CFIA advises that some require an up-front investment of time and resources from the fertilizer and supplement product proponents to meet regulatory obligations. This includes, but is not limited to: registration of products that have previously been exempt (e.g. some fertilizers containing micronutrients that met a narrow “specialty product” exemption); bilingual labelling, new record keeping requirements, etc.

It is important for agri-retailers to adjust business processes and operations as early as possible to ensure ongoing product compliance. It is of particular significance for downstream producers—companies that purchase and mix registered fertilizers and supplements in their final formulations, such as a growing media product containing a registered supplement. A downstream company cannot prepare labels and package product in compliance with the “new” regulations until the products purchased from their upstream suppliers: have fully transitioned to the “new” regulations; have been registered as required; and are compliant.

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