Ontario Ag Minister’s Marching Orders are Heavy on the Environment

Prairie grass species, such as needle-and-thread and northern wheatgrass, are hardy, nutrient dense and drought tolerant. Photo: Larry Gabruch.

Ontario’s focus on the environmental side of farming has just been underlined and intensified, even more.

With the midpoint mandate of her provincial government having been reached, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne put pen to paper last week to help guide both new and established ministers on the next part of their journey. Her mission was to provide them with “mandate letters,” missives that give each cabinet minister their marching orders for the foreseeable future.

For Jeff Leal, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, that directive featured an even stronger emphasis on the environment than the first part of the government’s mandate, which saw issues develop between the Liberals and grain farmers in particular.

Wynne opened her mandate letter to Leal by asking that he work closely with other ministers to deliver positive results on initiatives that cut across several ministries, specifically mentioning the Climate Change Action Plan, among others.

She directs him to support the agri-food sector to adopt low-carbon technologies, and to support the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change and Minister of Energy in promoting the production and use of renewable natural gas from Ontario farms and food processing facilities.

She goes on to instruct the minister to release a pollinator health plan this fall, and take “additional actions to address the key stressors that impact pollinator health.”

She doesn’t say what those actions might be.

But she further tells him to keep implementing the province’s first Pollinator Health Strategy, which included the controversial 80 per cent reduction in the number of acres planted with neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed by next year, and reduce mortality rates for honeybees to 15 per cent by 2020.

And there’s more.

By next summer, she wants to see a provincial Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy publicly released. This will include provincial investments in precision agriculture, the kind being researched in a big way at the University of Guelph, such as soil mapping and digital technology, to help gather data and information needed to assess soil health, carbon sequestration and accounting.

The following year, in early 2018, Wynne wants Leal to have worked with the minister of the environment and climate change to develop a draft Lake Erie Action Plan. She says that will move the province towards its target of reducing phosphorus levels in Lake Erie by 40 per cent.

And she wants Leal help finalize the review of the growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Greenbelt Plan, Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and Niagara Escarpment Plan.

“This includes continuing the work to protect prime agriculture lands and natural heritage systems by supporting the work of the relevant ministries in their efforts to complete the mapping of these areas in summer 2017,” she says.

Finally, she wants Leal to work with other ministries (she specifically mentions the environment and climate change ministry), communities and stakeholders, to finalize the Livestock in the Great Clay Belt Proposal.

The mandate letter has other aspects. None are as concentrated as the environmental focus, but are noteworthy nonetheless for producers.

For example, Wynne wants Leal to continue to champion supply management. “Supply management and regulated marketing helps maintain a stable, quality supply of products for Ontario’s food processors and consumers,” according to Wynne. Very true.

She also wants him to identify opportunities to expand natural gas access and affordability, and be a champion for local food.

As for the latter, she wants to add to its complexion by encouraging the development of what are increasingly being called “world crops” – the likes of bitter melon, bok choy and okra — to meet the diversity of Ontario consumers.

“For many Ontarians, traditional food ingredients need to be imported because they are not locally available,” she writes in her letter to Leal. “Working with stakeholders and industry partners, you will develop a strategy for the promotion of locally grown world crops by winter 2017.”

World crops could indeed be a boon to some Ontario farmers. As far back as five years ago, research from the University of Guelph identified such crops as an untapped market in Ontario, to the tune of more than $60 million a month. It’s mainly served now by imports.

And northern farmers will be glad to know expansion there is still a priority for Wynne. Besides completing the Great Clay Belt proposal, Wynne wants Leal to continue to lead the development of a Northern Ontario Agriculture, Aquaculture and Food Processing Sector Strategy to promote jobs and growth in Northern Ontario.

Priorities abound in this mandate letter. Some insiders say it’s a sign that the agriculture, food, and rural affairs ministry will be participating more in activities and decisions that affect the sector, instead of simply following other ministry’s leads. If that’s so, this mandate letter deserves a second look.

 

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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