Agricultural policy ideas should be at the forefront of Canada's post-pandemic recovery plan

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As we head closer to September 23 and the federal throne speech, some of us will be listening closely for words like "agriculture," "family farm" and "rural communities … "

In all of the discussions regarding the pandemic and recovery scenarios in public fora, I have rarely heard mention of food security or agriculture. Even when there was near panic regarding food sources and seeds earlier this year, there was more talk about what might happen if the border with the United States remained closed.

Little or nothing was ever said about food self-sufficiency. There was also a lot of talk about large factory farms and slaughter houses, which is important, but little mention of alternatives provided by family or small-scale farms.

In the last several months I would have expected to hear in mainstream media and from our federal politicians about how family farms in Canada might help increase our resilience to this and future pandemics. Wishful thinking perhaps.

There has been some money funnelled into the agricultural sector to offset COVID-19-related costs and debt, but far deeper policy change is required going forward.

As we near the September 23 speech, I try to remain optimistic.

There is an important policy document, published in late August by Farmers for Climate Solutions, that is helping to guide our way through this discussion. The policy document has been circulated at the federal level, and the coalition is hoping that some of its priorities could form part of the federal government's post-pandemic recovery plan which will apparently be revealed in the speech from the throne.

Farmers for Climate Solutions is a pan-Canadian coalition of more than 16 member groups including Atlantic Canada Organic Regional Network, Canadian Organic Growers, Canadian Forage and Grasslands Association, Coopérative d’Agriculture de Proximité Écologique, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, Equiterre, and the National Farmers Union, among several others. The secretariat is housed at SeedChange (formerly called USC Canada).

Farmers for Climate Solutions is calling for a COVID-19 recovery plan that includes solid agricultural policies that create resilience in the family farm sector. As with many other key sectors, COVID-19 has aggravated the cracks and gaps in Canadian agriculture. Any recovery plan needs to ensure agricultural policy addresses both economic and climate sustainability.

The policy document, titled "A better future starts on the farm: Recommendations for recovery from COVID-19 in Canadian agriculture," includes recommendations that explain how the recovery from COVID-19 needs to be linked to climate change policies. It provides detail on how family farmers can be at the forefront of supporting food security and sustainability for all Canadians.

The five key policy priorities are:

1) Encouraging on-farm renewable energy generation, fuel switching and building retrofits -- Farmers can help propel Canada toward a green energy transition. This investment supports new revenue generation and savings for farmers, and creates new rural green jobs.

2) Scaling up agri-environmental incentives -- Stimulate a transition toward lower-emission, highly resilient agriculture with more capital for farmers to adopt new approaches.

3) Investing in agri-environmental agrology services, especially through farmer-to-farmer training, demonstrations and mentorship -- Spread climate resilient practices from field to field to field by empowering farmer leaders to be role models and teachers in their communities.

4) Adapting risk management programs to encourage risk-reducing practices -- Adding bonus structures to risk management programs is an innovative way to offer savings and extra capital to farmers while building resilience.

5) Providing support for young and new farmers -- The future of our food and its ecological footprint depends on youth and new entrants. We must encourage young and new farmers to enter and thrive in the sector.

Each of these priorities comes with a detailed action plan.

Much like other sectors which have suffered due to long-term neglect and short-term thinking, COVID-19 is underscoring the agricultural policy changes that should have been implemented long ago, in particular support for young and new farmers.

Food security and the future of family farms is fundamental to health, fighting climate change and building resiliency to future catastrophes.

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Image: Dan Loran/Unsplash

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