Addressing the shortage of workers in agriculture, “everything related to the climate transition,” and preparing for an upcoming meeting with her provincial and territorial counterparts — those are the first three priorities Marie-Claude Bibeau mentions when asked about her to-do list as she returns as Canada’s Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food.

Following a third consecutive win in her riding in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the prime minister has once again tapped Bibeau to represent agriculture in the 39-member federal cabinet.

Ministerial staff still need to officially be hired (or re-hired), and we have yet to see the prime minister’s mandate letters to the ministers, but Bibeau is expected to quickly resume her work as she is familiar with the role, as well as the people and the files, having served as agriculture minister since March of 2019.

We had the opportunity to speak with the minister about her priorities, as well as the controversial appointment of Steven Guilbeault as Minister of Environment and Climate Change, the government’s fertilizer emission target, the role of Ottawa in addressing supply chain challenges, and more. You can listen to the interview here, and read a summary below:

Interview with Marie-Claude Bibeau (recorded October 29):

What do you see as your top priorities in the coming weeks?

Minister Bibeau: Well, the list is long. But I would say the labour shortage is essentially a big, big issue. Everything related to the climate transition — we’ve seen how hard our farmers have been hit this summer, and it’s important that we work on that. And getting ready for the FPT, the federal-provincial-territorial agriculture ministers meeting in about 10 days.

So to break each of those down, let’s start with the labour one — what what do you see as your role in terms of addressing the issues that that producers are facing on the labour front?

Well, one important element is temporary foreign workers, making sure that these workers can come to Canada safely and timely, and I’m working very closely with Minister Qualtrough on this. Obviously, we’re looking at different ways to encourage Canadians to come into the agricultural sector, if it’s working in the farm — of course, it’s very interesting — but there’s also a number of careers, that that you can join in the agricultural sector. Investing in childcare is also another way of making sure that that the parents can get back to work faster. We will make some changes in the some fiscal incentives to keep seniors to work a bit longer. And obviously investing in innovation. Automation is another way to tackle this labor challenge.

Steven Guilbeault’s appointment as environment minister has certainly raised eyebrows given his activist past. As the agriculture minister and the voice for the agriculture sector in in cabinet, how do you approach working with Minister Guilbeault while advocating for and and standing up for the interests of of our agriculture and agri-food sector?

Minister Guilbeault is definitely passionate about the environment, and he’s also a reasonable man. And actually the agricultural sector, we know farmers are the first ones to feel the impact of climate change. So it’s very important that we invest in our agriculture, for it to be sustainable to make sure that our soil and water are in good health for the next generation.

This is why we have already put in place a certain number of programs to support our farmers — put incentives in place for them to adopt more quickly the best practices we know such as cover cropping, rotational grazing, better management of the nutrients. We have a big program in place to help them afford more energy efficient technologies, such as grain dryers, barn heating, so we are doing a lot to support our farmers in this transition and make sure that our agriculture is sustainable.

It’s important, you know, in terms of the resource, and it’s also important because the consumers here in Canada and across the countries where we export are also asking about how their food is being produced. They want to make sure that it’s been produced in a sustainable way. So it’s very important that we do our best to to be leaders in sustainable agriculture.

One issue where you will have to work with Minister Guilbeault closely is the proposed 30 per cent fertilizer emission reduction target. There’s been a lot of discussion about this since we last had the chance to speak with you. During the election campaign, there was a new report that came out highlighting the cost that this policy could have to to farmers across Canada. Can that 30 per cent target, in your view, be reached without forcing farmers to use less fertilizer? Can we can we reach this without capping fertilizer use?

Well, I’m not a scientist. We will keep investing in research and innovation and in working with the industry to find the best way. It’s not only a matter of quantity, it’s a matter of quality. The 4R approach is a good approach, and it’s going in the right direction. The question is also, can we afford not to do it? We really, really have to be ambitious. But you know, we recognize that it’s a challenge. And we want to be there with the industry, with the farmers to find the best practices, to find all the ways that are better… As I said, I’m not a scientist, but I know that there’s so much research being done in practices and products. So we’ll keep supporting those who know the business more scientifically than I do.

You mentioned the 4R nutrient stewardship practices. As it stands, they’re not currently accounted for in how emissions are measured. Is that a conversation that you’re going to have with Minister Guilbeault, or that your department is going to have with Environment and Climate Change, to have 4R and things that farmers do at the farm level recognized, in terms of what they do to reduce emissions?

Yes. It’s a challenge actually to measure all the efforts that our farmers are doing. And this is somewhere, also where we are investing, because it’s a new scope of work or new knowledge that we have to develop, how to measure the results of our different efforts. And I believe that, you know, 4R is a good approach. So how now can we measure and recognize how much further it brings us?

In the days before the election campaign began, there was the pause announced for the glyphosate MRL review. And and that raised some questions as to whether that was politics interfering with scientific process. What’s your response to people who have concerns about the potential of politics getting into PMRA (Pest Management Regulatory Agency) process?

First, my partner in this journey will be Minister Duclos, the Minister of Health. And actually it is exactly because we don’t want politics to get into it that we didn’t want to make a specific decision. We’ve said, “Okay, going in the direction that was suggested through the consultation appeared to be surprising, so let’s have a look. Just take a pause, and have a look at the frame under which the PMRA is working.” Is it still relevant to our reality in 2021? Does it meet the expectations of our Canadian consumers? Does PMRA have the resources to do their work at the level we expect? So, with Minister Duclos, we will be reviewing the framework and probably the law, which dates back 2002…and then let the scientists proceed with their analysis.

There’s lots of discussion about the inflation and rising food prices, and the supply chain backlog that’s factoring into rising costs for a lot of the things that Canadians buy. Industry groups have launched a campaign this week regarding the “container crunch.” Do you see your government having a role? And are you planning to work with Transport Minister Alghabra on this?

Of course, we’re always working in collaboration. There may be some limit to where the government can get involved, but we were following it very closely and trying to support different sector to ease processes where we can, and at the same time supporting the people in need in Canada in different ways through different benefits. So it’s very challenging at this time. Labor shortage, again, is one of the reason why so many prices are going up — this is another example. It’s another challenge that we are working on and that you know, if this can be fixed, it will help for more general issues that we are facing like inflation.

You mentioned in your opening comments, Minister Bibeau, the importance of your relationship and work at the FPT table with the provinces and territories. There was a meeting scheduled for September that was postponed due to the election. Is there a plan to meet in in the coming weeks with your provincial and territorial counterparts?

Yes, actually. November 8 and 9, or 9 and 10. Well, in a week or so, we will be meeting in Guelph. Some of us will be there in person, others will be joining virtually, but we will spend two days together to go across all our priorities, and working also on the next Canadian partnership agreement, which will be for the cycle from 2023 to 2028.

(Listen to the interview above for Minister Bibeau’s complete comments.)

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