Strong leadership needed to double ag exports & build a strong Ontario job market

Owen RobertsFor a province that can seem overrun with highways and hi-tech interests (at least in its most southern regions), it’s significant that its premier, Kathleen Wynne, chose to name herself agriculture and food minister when she took over the reins.

She had every other option. You name the portfolio and it could have been hers. But she chose agriculture and food.

Some dismissed or even decried her decision. They said an agriculture minister needs to focus exclusively on agriculture, and that no one can wear both hats effectively. Others say she claimed the portfolio for political reasons, to try bolstering Liberal fortunes in predominantly blue rural ridings.

When the premier is also the agri-food minister, farmers have an unusually direct line to the top and they should embrace their good fortune.

The reason, however, doesn’t matter. When the premier is also the agri-food minister, farmers have an unusually direct line to the top and they should embrace their good fortune. I don’t think they’ve taken full advantage of the agriculture and food minister’s unusually lofty standing.

Case in point: Earlier this week, at the annual provincial agri-food summit, the premier surprised the sector by issuing it a challenge to double its growth rate and exports, and create more than 120,000 new jobs by 2020.

“I have made it my personal commitment to facilitate growth in Ontario through strategic investments and tackling barriers to growth,” she said. “Now, I am looking to the agri-food [sector] to take a leadership role in accelerating growth in their industry.”

Critics said the challenge lacked detail, such as a pot of money to make that growth happen.

And sure, funding will be important. But it’s pretty clear the way forward will be suggested by the sector, not the premier. She says she’ll help the industry meet her challenge by taking a “whole-of-government” approach. That includes expanding the mandate of what the province calls its Open for Business Agri-Food Stakeholder Forum, by addressing all aspects of economic growth in the sector.

Until now, the forum’s main focus was how burdensome regulations impede growth. From now on, the door’s open to propose what else must be done to create an environment that will usher in twice as many exports, twice as much growth and a significant increase in jobs.

This challenge goes way beyond local food, which has been a high priority for the Ontario government. For example, the premier herself reminded the sector innovation was key to the new Growing Forward 2 suite of programs, with $235-million dedicated to supporting innovative initiatives over the next five years.

The agri-food sector needs to take some real action here and answer the premier’s challenge with innovative proposals for growth. Clearly, she’s looking for leadership. What a great opportunity for agriculture to show it.

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as

@theurbancowboy

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