By Ghislain Gervais, president of Sollio Cooperative Group
During the lockdown, Canadians showed a renewed interest in Canadian agricultural products. This increased consumer enthusiasm for their agri-food sector provides an opportunity to reinvest in agriculture and food processing.
Everywhere, thousands of jobs have been suspended or lost across many sectors. The gradual resumption of economic activity will help to some extent, but it will take time.
The federal government has created an economic recovery committee and is working to identify sectors and projects that can contribute to that recovery. Various cooperative and private projects could also be accelerated with a boost from the government.
The agri-food sector is a source of jobs and wealth creation throughout the country. We are far from having exhausted its potential. We can strengthen regional economies through targeted investment in agri-food, which would quickly contribute to the recovery and bolster the foundations of food self-sufficiency.
Sollio Cooperative Group (formerly La Coop fédérée) unites 50 cooperatives in Canada and has some 120,000 members. Cooperatives, which are firmly rooted in their communities, provide stability and strength. The cooperative business model has weathered the crises of recent decades with steadfast resilience and a willingness to redistribute wealth in their communities.
Together, our three divisions, Sollio Agriculture, Olymel, and Groupe BMR, as well as our network of cooperatives, have been central to food production, processing and distribution in trying times. These experiences have taught us important lessons.
As a result, we envision a five-pronged economic recovery, i.e. innovations that can be accelerated through the action of cooperative and private sector partners through comprehensive government support, including:
Increased productivity: In both agricultural production and food processing, increased use of digital technologies and innovation would increase and diversify our production in an environmentally responsible manner. Support for local and regional communities, producers and businesses is needed to accelerate this shift. In 2018, the federal government recognized that Canada’s agri-food sector has low rates of (digital) technology adoption compared to other countries.
Increased food autonomy and exports: We now know the risks of relying on external markets for our food. So, yes, increasing our self-reliance is vital. But it won’t happen by itself. Investment is needed to extend the production season. In addition, we can create thousands of jobs by selling surplus production abroad. Of course, producing food for Canadians is our first priority, but all of us can profit from exports.
Developing the vitality of regions: In the regions, we can increase wealth by helping to preserve family farms and boosting exports, especially of processed products. We are calling for support that targets agricultural financing for food processing, which is a major sector in the Canadian manufacturing industry.
Supporting the sustainable economy: The expansion of precision agriculture leads to the optimal use of water and other resources in production processes while reducing greenhouse gases. The development of short food supply routes and online sales must also be supported (financially). This organizational structure requires new investments.
Valuing frontline workers: For farmers and food-processing plants, labour shortages persist. We need to value these trades and foster regional immigration. The last few months have underscored how important frontline workers are to both food retailers and processing plants.
Canada, as a whole, must reposition itself for economic recovery. Sollio Cooperative Group proposes ways of achieving rapid recovery with a view to strengthening the economies of many regions. The goal of these suggested solutions is also to strengthen each link in the farm-to-table food chain.