Another week…Another government report

Ahead of the Heard

Perhaps it has something to do with Premier Stelmach’s upcoming resignation, but government reports on the future of Alberta seem to be coming out all at once. First it was the Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy report, and now it’s the Alberta Competitiveness Council report. I suspect most citizens have never heard of either Council and as you might suspect their reports are destined to gather dust along with other such reports that have been created over the past 40 years. If nothing else it has kept consultants, experts and busfulls of bureaucrats busy for months dreaming up scenarios about the fate of this province. I almost forgot – I suspect if all the costs are ever added up, this entire exercise will have cost taxpayers several million dollars.

In a previous column I noted that the Premier’s Council report had the astounding approach to basically ignore the second largest economic driver in this province – that being agriculture. It went so far as to actually change agriculture to Food and Beverage Products, as if the word agriculture was no longer politically correct and had no place in a future more trendy Alberta. At least the most recent report from the Competitiveness Council used the word agriculture and had a five page section in the report, albeit only on grains and oilseeds.

That section had the usual words about the importance and contribution of agriculture to the economy, but it did contain some over-arching recommendations. Unfortunately most were prettied up old ideas. First it recommended that Alberta continue to pursue the termination of the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) monopoly. That’s more old ideology than any guarantee of making grain growing more profitable.

The CWB and its opponents have spent years trying to prove that both choices are better for grain growers. There is one certainty, when the CWB is gone Canadian growers will start to fl ood northern US border grain elevators, and the inevitable American trade reaction will happen in the form of border mischief. The CWB will not be able to defend the Canadian position as they have 9 times in the past. Interestingly, the report does not recommend the establishment of a contingency fund to cover the costs of fighting US border trade actions in the absence of the CWB. I suspect Alberta tax payers will be on the hook for that inevitable situation.

The competitiveness report bemoans the production shortcomings of wheat and barley in comparison to canola, corn and soybeans. It lays the blame on the decreasing public support of plant breeding and suggests ways be found to increase more research. Not once does the report bring up the elephant in the room regarding plant breeding. The reason the aforementioned crops are roaring ahead of wheat and barley is because private seed genetics companies have been allowed to use genetic engineering(GE) to improve the productivity of corn, canola and soybeans. Wheat and barley will never significantly increase in productivity unless seed companies are allowed to use GE to breed better varieties. Not once is that reality mentioned, the absence of that point is a glaring hole in the report. If the authors were opposed to GE wheat and barley they should have stated why and made the economic implications clear.

The report also suggests that to stem the decline in grain growers that efforts be made to encourage the immigration of farmers to Alberta. There is something missing in the thought process here, the reason we have fewer grain growers is that in order to make a living, existing growers have to constantly expand displacing those growers who are less efficient. Bringing in more immigrant farmers will only see land prices increase as they need to acquire just as much or even more land in order to make a living at grain growing. The report states that most immigrant farmers acquire farms that produce supply management commodities. There is a message in that, immigrant farmers with money to invest do that because they know those are the only commodities that are consistently profitable and stable.

Another week and another report, one ponders when, if ever, will we get a report that has some vision, some honesty and some reality of what could and what should be done for the future of agriculture in Alberta.