The state of Canada’s agricultural sector

A round-up of perspectives from 11 national associations on history, current activities and challenges, and future aspirations
Treena Hein
September 12, 2017
By Treena Hein
The state of Canada’s agricultural sector
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, we’ve sought commentary from 11 of Canada’s largest national agricultural organizations on the state of each sector. As you will see, Canada’s agriculture sector is very strong and growing, and although challenges exist, so does the confidence to meet those challenges.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture

The CFA was formed in 1935 and represents farmers of all regions and commodities.

“Currently, one-in-eight Canadians are employed in agriculture and agri-food,” president Ron Bonnett notes. “From 2013 to 2015, total Canadian agri-food exports grew by about 20 per cent to well over $55 billion annually. In 2014, the agriculture and agri-food system generated $108.1 billion, accounting for 6.6 per cent of Canada's GDP.”

Bonnett adds that Canadian agriculture is also poised for “tremendous” growth.

“The 2017 federal budget plans to increase agri-food exports to $75 billion annually by 2025, a rise of $20 billion in less than 10 years,” he explains. “At the same time, leaders across the sector are monitoring current issues with large potential changes to impact our industry here in Canada. U.S. President Donald Trump’s insistence in renegotiating North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has the potential to disrupt the agriculture sector, and the Canadian government is looking to develop trade agreements with other countries such as China and India in preparation for this.”

Other current national agricultural challenges, in Bonnett’s view, include the need for harmonized regulations and processes for improved food production and distribution, labour shortages, and the development of the next Agriculture Policy Framework. However, it’s very positive that the federal government has publicly committed to improving support for the entire agri-food value chain.

“The future of Canadian agriculture looks very promising,” Bonnett states. “Growing middle-class populations in foreign markets are hungry for Canadian food, and growing domestic support to improve our agri-food systems will help us meet those demands to become one of the world’s leading suppliers of food.”

Canadian Pork Council

The Canadian Swine Council was established in 1966 and later renamed the Canadian Pork Council, the voice of Canada’s 12,000 hog producers on national and international issues. Canada's pork producers raise more than 25.5 million animals a year, supporting 31,000 on-farm jobs and 103,000 direct and indirect other jobs which generate $23.8 billion in total.

In 2016, Canada’s pork industry exported over 1 million tonnes of pork products, over $3.2 billion, to 90 countries.

“It is a mature industry,” chair Rick Bergmann says, “that exhibits steady, sustainable growth in response to strong foreign and domestic demand for high-quality Canadian pork products.”

Among many exciting industry developments over the past five years, Bergmann singles out success in meeting various market needs, with a resulting increase in demand for Canadian pork from Asian markets being among the most significant achievements.

“The decision to stop the use of growth promoters in hog production meant that producers could take advantage of opportunities in China,” he explains, “and from 2013 to 2016, pork exports to China increased 148 per cent.”

Indeed, Bergmann believes the long-term future for the Canadian pork sector resides in export.

“There are tremendous market opportunities for Canadians when we have competitive access to export markets,” he says. “Opening markets and then capitalizing on the opportunities takes a collaborative effort of both government and industry. As long as we continue to work together, Canada’s hog sector will enjoy a prosperous future.”

Canada Grains Council

The Canada Grains Council represents the full value-chain of the grain, oilseed, pulse and special crop industries. It was formed in 1969. President Tyler Bjornson says Canada’s grain sector has seen significant growth over the last few years and that this trend is expected to continue.

“Growers have an unprecedented choice in the variety of crops they can grow sustainably and profitably on their farm,” he observes. “Today, at $25 billion a year, nearly half of Canadian agri-food exports are grains, oilseeds, pulse and special crop exports. With growing global demand for safe, high-quality grains and oilseeds, countries around the world will look more and more to Canada to meet that demand.”

As exports increase, however, there are growing needs for dependable export markets and the regulatory systems that support them. Among other factors, there are very real challenges for Canada’s grain sector in things like the many different approaches being taken in various international jurisdictions to approve crop protection products and plant breeding innovations.

However, Bjornson says the CGC is an expert in navigating these challenges and more.

“The CGC has been working domestically and with international partners to address non-tariff trade barriers,” he says, “by developing protocols with enough flexibility to respect international legal jurisdictions while allowing the trade to thrive.”

Chicken Farmers of Canada

Created in 1978 as the Canadian Chicken Marketing Agency, Chicken Farmers of Canada came into being in 1998. There are now 2,803 Canadian chicken farmers and 191 processors, sustaining 87,200 jobs and contributing almost $7 billion to Canada’s GDP.

“In sum, we are part of Canada’s economic solution,” chair Benoît Fontaine says, “and do so without subsidies.”

Chicken is doing very well, he notes, with record high consumption of 32.5 kg per person in 2016 following three years of previous growth. Indeed, chicken is now the number one meat in Canada.

“Our ‘Raised by a Canadian Farmer’ brand awareness has grown to over 30 per cent since it launched in late 2013,” Fontaine states, “and the appeal of our program continues to rise.”

Among the sector’s current challenges is the long-time issue of fraudulent imports of spent fowl (old egg-laying hens processed for meat once they reach the end of their production cycle).

“Whereas broiler meat is subject to import controls when entering Canada, spent fowl is not,” Fontaine explains. “A few years ago, some unscrupulous Canadian importers realized that it was practically impossible to visually distinguish between spent fowl meat and broiler meat, especially in the form of boneless cuts. Consequently, unaccounted imports of boneless broiler meat started making their way into the Canadian market...being fraudulently declared as spent fowl at the border.”

This not only takes away jobs and revenue from Canada’s chicken farmers and processors, he notes, it also put Canadian consumers at risk due to broken food chain traceability.

Canadian Cattlemen's Association

The CCA was founded in 1932 as the Council of Western Beef Producers and renamed in 1967 to recognize its national focus. Canada’s beef industry currently contributes $33 billion worth of sales of goods and services either directly or indirectly to the economy.

“At the same time, the beef industry attributes just 2.4 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas footprint, less than half the world average,” president Dan Darling says, “and provides value to society through the ecosystem services grazing cattle enable, like preserving grasslands and wildlife habitat, enhancing biodiversity, nutrient recycling and carbon sequestration.”

The current National Beef Strategy is serving as a blueprint for the industry to achieve sustainable growth in the near-term and will set the stage for long-term growth through positioning the industry to be a world leader in high-quality beef.

“Modern beef production is increasingly efficient due to investment in research and innovation and adaption of technologies,” Darling notes. “Minimizing industry’s environmental footprint is central to progressing the concept of sustainability in the beef sector along with environmental stewardship and raising cattle with care – issues of utmost importance to consumers.”

Darling also observes a growing global anti-trade sentiment, but through the International Beef Alliance, the CCA is committed to promoting the merits of trade liberalization and the need to eliminate non-tariff trade barriers. He notes that domestically, meeting consumer expectations and addressing misinformation remains a challenge, and that progress is being made to ensure an adequate labour supply in the meat processing sector and agriculture in general.

Canadian Canola Growers Association

The CCGA was established in 1984. CEO Rick White notes that Canada’s canola sector contributes $26.7 billion to Canada’s economy annually, employing 250,000 Canadians and generating $10 billion in exports. He points out that canola is the single-largest field crop and is planted by 43,000 farmers across Canada.

“Plant science innovations such as herbicide tolerance and new disease resistance traits, reduced pod shattering and better crop vigour,” he notes, “are continually helping canola farmers grow a more sustainable crop.”

The canola sector continues to pursue opportunities to sustainably grow markets around the globe. The industry has established a target of producing 26 million tonnes by the year 2025, a target which will be met through building a sustainable and reliable supply, differentiating the value of canola – canola oil, for example, is becoming well known for its low saturated fat content and high smoke point – and creating stable and open trade.

“With 90 per cent of canola exported as seed, oil or meal, the main challenges facing the sector relate to maintaining and increasing market access and getting our products to market efficiently,” White says. “The sector, and farmers in particular, continues to be challenged by increasing pressures in the form of input costs, revenues, societal demands, regulations, and other government policies.”

He notes that canola is still a relatively young crop, with tremendous opportunities for further growth based on solid research and innovation.

Egg Farmers of Canada

Egg Farmers of Canada was created in 1972, and represents Canada’s 1,000-plus regulated egg farmers in all provinces and the Northwest Territories. The Canadian egg industry supports 17,600 jobs across the country, nearly a quarter of which are direct on-farm work, and delivers $443.9 million dollars in tax revenues to all levels of government.

CEO Tim Lambert says egg farming is a strong and growing industry.

“We recently marked our tenth consecutive year of continuous growth,” he notes. “Not only have we seen significant growth in the retail sales of eggs over the past decade, Canadian egg farmers have also stepped up their ability to meet growing demand by expanding their production. In fact, between 2006 and 2016, egg production on Canadian farms has increased by 30 per cent.”

In 2016, EFC announced that over the next 20 years, Canadian egg farmers will transition away from conventional housing systems.

“The task of transforming an entire agriculture supply chain like ours is complicated, and there is much work to be done to better understand how a transition of this magnitude will work over time,” Lambert observes.

He also notes that “with the NAFTA re-negotiations upon us, we remain committed to promoting and nurturing the system that delivers Canadians the freshest and highest quality eggs: supply management.”

Lambert also says that there is still tremendous opportunity to help Canadians learn about what egg farmers do and that the industry will continue to enhance trust in egg production.

Soy Canada

Soy Canada was formed in 2014.

“In 2016, the Canadian soybeans sector reached new heights with all segments of the value chain experiencing strong growth and development,” chair Mark Huston notes. “Today, over 31,000 producers across Canada are growing soybeans...and 70 to 75 per cent of total domestic soybean production is exported to over 70 countries.”

From 2016 to 2017, soybean seeded area increased by 33 per cent to over 7.3 million acres, and growth of acreage is especially strong in Western Canada. New technology and genetics have resulted in continued and steady growth of soybeans in Quebec and Ontario, and that these factors have resulted in new varieties suitable for the Canadian Prairies, leading to unprecedented growth in soybean production across Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

At the same time, Huston notes that the introduction of soybean on such a large scale in Western Canada comes with the typical ‘new crop’ jitters, including challenges such as communicating agronomic information to growers, maintaining and building on Canada’s reputation for quality in new production regions, and encouraging and realizing domestic value-added processing for soybeans in the prairie region.

“This year Soy Canada will be releasing a strategic plan to double acreage and production levels of Canadians soybeans over the next ten years,” he says. “The plan will also include targets related to increasing soybean protein levels, building on our sector’s contribution to natural capital, as well as expanding exports and processing capabilities.”

Value-added processing infrastructure in Western Canada could be important in achieving these goals.

The Canadian Horticultural Council

The CHC was founded in 1922, and in 2016, farm cash receipts for the sector reached over $6 billion.

“Our sector continues to enjoy slow and steady growth,” executive director Rebecca Lee says. “The government has identified agriculture, including horticulture, as a top economic priority for Canada ... CHC expects that new investments in innovation and technology will support the sector’s growth and sustainability.”

Lee notes that Canada’s horticultural sector is always looking to enter new markets. For example, “two years ago, a significant trade agreement with China was signed that allowed for fresh cherries to be exported there. This opened up a major overseas opportunity which can lead to future trade agreements with different sectors, such as greenhouse fruit and vegetables, and potatoes.”

The horticultural industry is facing rising production costs due to factors like labour and carbon pricing, and Lee says it’s unfair to expect growers to absorb all these costs when profit margins are already very small.

She notes that the price of fresh produce should increase, but despite the fact that Canadians pay less for food than almost anywhere in the world, they remain reluctant to accept rising food costs. Producers are therefore challenged to compete with imports from international growers who do not face the same production costs.

“The sector is looking at ways to maintain global competitiveness,” she explains, “through labour-saving projects, improved varieties, better storage facilities to lengthen harvest times, and working closely with government and industry to determine appropriate crop protection tools.”

Pulse Canada

Just over 20 years ago, the pulse grower groups in four Canadian provinces sat down with processors and exporters to form Pulse Canada. Canada now has a multi-billion-dollar pulse industry – it’s the country’s fifth-largest crop – with exports to over 150 countries valued in 2016 at over $4.1 billion.

CEO Gordon Bacon says many consumers are interested in healthy eating and adding more plant protein to their diets, so the food industry is using pulses and pulse ingredients to increase the nutritional profile of their products. However, he notes that on a global basis, there is still a gap in investment in pulse breeding, production, processing and ingredient functionality research.

“Pulse Canada’s approach to addressing the growing interest in pulses has been to educate consumers about the value of pulses from a nutrition and health perspective,” he explains, “and to work with food companies interested in reformulating food products or introducing new product lines that deliver value, enhanced nutrition and improved sustainability measures.”

He believes pulses are very much part of the equation that will allow national governments and international bodies to meet the commitments they’ve made to improving human health and the environment, such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Dairy Farmers of Canada

One of Canada’s oldest commodity groups, DFC was founded in 1934. Director of Communications Isabelle Bouchard notes that dairy is now one of the top two agricultural sectors in seven Canadian provinces, and nationally sustains close to 221,000 jobs. Between 2013 and 2016, total milk production grew by 13 per cent as consumers sought more natural high-quality products.

“The Canadian dairy sector is dynamic, yet stable,” Bouchard notes. “Farmers and processors are making significant and continual investments into research and innovation to be more efficient and offer more diverse products to the Canadian marketplace.”

An important Canadian dairy industry development is a sustainability initiative called proAction, which was launched in 2013. Bouchard says this forward-thinking national framework is made mandatory for all dairy farms thanks to Canada’s supply management system, a system which allows farmers to make important investments in sustainability and positions the Canadian dairy sector as a global leader in sustainable farming practices.

“Many of us have heard about President Trump’s comments attacking Canada’s dairy,” she notes. “As we enter NAFTA renegotiations, we urge the Canadian government to continue to defend the Canadian supply-managed system, which various polls reveal is supported by a large majority of Canadians. We know that our high-quality dairy products are very nutritious...and we want them to continue to be available to Canadians at prices that are stable and fair for everyone, from farm to table.”

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