Don’t be surprised to see more hydro bill relief in sight in 2017 for rural Ontarians, says the province’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs.
In a year-end interview, Minister Jeff Leal said that although the province has started finding ways to reduce energy bills, “there’s more to do.” He said he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see additional breaks coming for rural hydro users.
Nice. And needed. And consistent with the province’s stated goal of reducing electricity bills and trying to improve the messy energy situation we’re in, while simultaneously recognizing rural Ontario needs some extra attention.
Energy, along with preserving the province’s natural capital – that is, soil, water and air, the resources that make the province tick – is very much on the mind of the minister and his provincial government colleagues as head into the New Year.
Natural capital is familiar to farmers; maybe not as a conversational term, but certainly in daily practice. Food production is unsustainable without healthy soil, clean water and clean air. The key is to find greater environmental and economic harmony between Ontario’s natural capital users – farmers and society, among them.
Natural capital, in fact, underpins the entire agri-food sector. And that’s worth noting, given the sector is a major player in Ontario’s economy. Agri-food generates $36.4 billion a year in gross domestic product and sustains more than 790,000 jobs.
Farmers’ natural capital anchors those numbers.
Looking forward in the agri-food sector, the touchstone towards greater prosperity is Premier Kathleen Wynne’s ’s 2013 challenge to create 120,000 new agri-food jobs here, and double the sector’s annual growth rate by 2020.
When the calendar changes, that pinnacle will be just three years away. So far, the numbers look pretty good: more than 42,000 new jobs have been created, along with an additional $2.2 billion in agriculture and food-related economic activity. But there’s still a long way to go, and it’s likely that success will be driven by exports, by creating jobs and investing in research that generates new products and processes.
The food and beverage processing industry here is the largest and most diverse of its kind in Canada. It’s also Ontario’s second-largest manufacturing sector, contributing almost $12.1 billion to the province’s GDP. Plus, Ontario is the second-largest food distribution hub in North America.
All this means any trade-related question marks with the US, traditionally our biggest trade partner, must be addressed. To that end, Leal says it was fortuitous that for the first time, Ontario hosted the NAFTA partners for their annual meeting this year, to try to underline the need to keep doors open with the US.
However, if those doors start closing, which could be a threat under Donald Trump’s presidency, Ontario needs to catalyze additional trade activity in other markets, such as China and India. Participants on Ontario-led trade missions to those countries in 2016, including minister Leal and the president of the University of Guelph, Franco Vaccarino, returned enthused up about new opportunities they either sensed or secured.
And if multi-partner trade agreements with the US are destined to be rewritten, Leal says we need to activity seek bilateral trade deals. “There are opportunities around the world for Ontario, and for Canada,” he says.
Those opportunities depend on many factors. For example, the internal activities of trading partners are increasingly under the microscope. If Ontario is to seek new partners, or even continue to service existing ones, it needs to be able to withstand extreme scrutiny and what might be considered excessive natural capital standards. These include standards for pollinators, animal welfare, food processing and packaging, that may exceed those practiced by the trading partners themselves.
Legislation helps trading partners recognize that we’re looking after our most basic natural resources — soil and water in particular, Leal notes — with the province’s emphasis on, and investment in, soil mapping and farmland preservation, soil health and Lake Erie water protection.
One of the biggest environmental activities of 2016 was the soil health framework development and the $30-million Agricultural Soil Health and Conservation Strategy, allocated as part of the Climate Change Action Plan. During October and November, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs hosted several sessions to seek input from a variety of stakeholders, including farm organizations and Indigenous communities, on the way forward for this most precious natural capital item.
Over the coming months, the ministry will be collaborating with the initiative’s working group and considering the 40 or so written submissions it received from the public. It will then develop a draft soil health strategy to present to stakeholders and the public late next summer.
And finally, there’s the matter of human capital. Ontario, like other provinces, worries about where the next generation of farmers will come from. Leal says he’s worked to address this challenge by investing in 4-H, by encouraging young people to consider careers in agriculture, and through the youth-oriented rural Ontario round table meetings held last summer.
Now, as we head in 2017, Leal says people outside of the sector are talking about agriculture. As their interest in it continues to pique, it’s grabbing headlines.
“We’re gradually moving agriculture onto the front pages of the media,” he says.
We already know some of the story lines for the New Year – new frontiers for trade, continuing economic recovery and enhanced protection for natural resources, among them. And while we don’t know how those stories will evolve, there’s no question that agriculture will get more page-one attention than ever before.