Same old, same old, not working

Recently the Western Centre for Economic Research, a University of Alberta think-tank released a document entitled “Alberta Agriculture and Food Trade: Recent Trends” by Dr. Joe Rosario. It’s the type of document you expect from such an institution, a quite detailed and fairly readable tome about the status of a particular economic activity in Alberta. However, like many similar academic exercises, it is guaranteed to instantly gather dust as it is more a recollection of past dreams and schemes than anything that promises real solutions.

The author, Dr. Rosario spent many years with Alberta Agriculture as the senior trade policy analyst. Having personally known him, he is most assuredly an expert in his field and probably influenced a generation of agriculture trade policy decisions made by the Alberta government. But with all due respect that was then and this is now – and what needs to be accepted by Dr. Rosario and those that support his views is that the policies they created have had some failures and shortcomings. Resting on your laurels and making lofty pronouncements that more of the same is needed borders on the delusional, considering the state of agriculture in this province.

The report recycles that old saw horse – find new markets for products that are to be produced cheaper with technology. Yeah – okay – but that’s what everyone else does. What has happened with that policy is that we are indeed producing more products but we are ending up trying to sell them cheaper in surplus markets or to countries that try to restrict our ag exports.

Incredibly the report makes the audacious suggestion that Canada and Alberta should give up supply management for dairy and poultry in favour of some hoped for new markets. Now that makes sense – let’s destroy the most consistently profitable and stable sectors of Canadian agriculture just so we could sell more other products at money-losing prices.

The report reaffirms the Alberta government position that the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly on export wheat and barley needs to end. That’s always been more of an ideological position than one based on real opportunities. The idea is that new processing facilities will spring up once the CWB is out of the picture and that will see price increases. That may well be – but I recall when the old Crow Rate was eliminated, it was supposed to usher in a new era of opportunities but it didn’t quite work out that way. One could even consider blaming the elimination of the Crow with encouraging the creation of the massive hog industry we now have in western Canada which is now on the verge of a total collapse.

One might have hoped that the government and university brain-trust behind the policies that created both the present dynamic state of agriculture in Alberta, and its serious economic problems, might want to mention that there is a down side. But no, the report espouses more of the same – that’s too bad because it shows an alarming ignorance of what was and is going on in agriculture in this province and country.

What one might have hoped for when looking back and forward is to accept what hasn’t worked and suggest a different approach. For instance, perhaps what the report should have suggested is a thorough examination of what type of production is actually viable in this province; perhaps an examination of what products grown in this province should be considered for supply management; perhaps examining how we can use retaliatory trade rules against those that restrict our products; perhaps it should have suggested how producers and land owners could exploit environmental issues as a source of income.

Unfortunately the report did nothing of the sort. What it may take in the long run and it may take a very long time (it will need the retirement of those that created the present policies) is for a new generation of policy analysts to find their own feet and bring forth very different ideas for viable agricultural production in this province. I have said this many times before, but I would hope every government visionary would keep this in mind – “Everything we produce in Canada, outside of maple syrup and blueberries, can be produced somewhere else cheaper.”

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