The race is on — Jeff Leal talks ethanol, wages and election prospects


The Ontario Liberal government has had its share of challenges in 2017.

For starters, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s approval rating sunk to the low teens as Ontarians continued to gnash their teeth in response to the government’s hydro power plan. And then there was the government’s plan to increase the provincial minimum wage to $15 by 2019. It drew mixed reviews but found few friends in the agriculture and food industry.

For Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Jeff Leal, both issues have proven challenging in his efforts to grow a sector he routinely refers to as the engine of the Ontario economy.

As the year winds down and a 2018 June provincial election draws near, RealAgricuture’s Shaun Haney caught up with Leal to reflect on the past year and also talk about election prospects.

Leal heads into the new year on a high note, having won industry-wide praise for pushing his government to increase the provincial ethanol mandate from 5 to 10 per cent of gasoline for 2020, but not everyone is happy. Horticulture growers have been vocal in their opposition to the minimum wage hike, charging it could devastate the sector. Leal says his government understands the plight of growers and will commit $60 million over the next two years to help the sector compete against competitors such as Mexico where workers earn $6 per day.

Leal also shares his view on NAFTA and the important role trade plays in Ontario and Canadian agriculture. The Minister travelled extensively over the past year, meeting with representatives from 30 U.S. states; he also travelled to Mexico to meet with agriculture and trade officials. Throughout his journeys he notes that there is full agreement from all countries that agriculture has benefitted from NAFTA, but there are challenges ahead. In order for serious trade discussion to take place in 2018, he says ‘non-starters’ such as dismantling supply management must be withdrawn from the negotiating table.

Haney notes that the Ontario Liberals have been embroiled in protracted battles with the ag industry – the long battle over use of neonicotinoid seed treatments being one example – and wonders how farmers and rural Ontario will view the party when they head to the ballot box in June. Leal says he and his colleagues are up for the challenge. The party has been busy choosing rural candidates and their goal is to win another election. The race is on.

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