The Canadian horticultural landscape: from cost to cost to cost

Article reproduced with permission from The Grower


Winnipeg, MB – The theme of “cost creep” dominated the recent annual general meeting, March 14-16, of the Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC). When tallied, the costs that are now borne by growers threaten competitiveness in a global marketplace. And carbon taxes top the list.

Peter Cummings, chair of the B.C. Greenhouse Growers’ Association, said in the greenhouse committee meeting, “I have views of climate change and am skeptical that policy remedies are going to yield the outcomes that politicians desire…If concessions aren’t met, the result will spell the end of our industry and have an adverse effect on our economy…We need to find a benign way to get in front of the public on this issue. If we as an industry don’t engage with the public on this issue, then we are headed to ruination.”

Cost of production

Current carbon pricing policies vary between Canadian provinces and between global trading partners, in their implementation timelines, provisions of rebates and program options. Provincial governments have been given until 2018 to implement one of two pricing systems or the federal government’s floor price for carbon emissions will be imposed:  $10 per tonne which will rise by $10 per tonne per year until it reaches $50 per tonne in 2022. Many anecdotes chronicle the meteoric rise of electricity bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes on one farm alone.

The CHC board of directors sponsored a resolution that said in part: “The Canadian government, already valuing the horticultural industry as an economic driver, must acknowledge the horticultural growers’ continued role and contributions towards the intersecting priorities of both climate change mitigation and food production. We resist the concept of a carbon price without a formal plan to demonstrate how funds collected will address the challenges faced by growers in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The Canadian Horticultural Council will lobby the federal government to continue to provide guidance in the implementation of provincial carbon pricing policies.”

To address these new federal policies in a more formal way, the CHC members passed a resolution to create an Energy and Environment Working Group.

Other costs are chipping away at profitability:  a recent 10 per cent increase on corrugated cardboard, annual increases to the minimum wage, a cost recovery initiative of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and deductions by grocery retailers of six cents out of every farmgate dollar for marketing purposes.

In particular, growers pushed back on grocers with two resolutions. One requested that Canadian retailers recognize the CanadaGAP program, or equivalent, and implement a broad-based retailer code of practice to avoid further abuse of the dominant market position of highly concentrated retailers. The B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, sponsors of the resolution, explained that Costco and Walmart are introducing additional specific requirements that are not science and evidence-based such as testing water from monitored municipal systems. A second resolution, sponsored by the B.C. Greenhouse Growers’ Association, also lobbied for a grocery retailer code of practice.

Cost of loss of access to pesticides

Another issue of high concern to growers is the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) re-evaluation of several pesticides which are used in 43 horticultural crops. The current proposal is to ban agricultural uses of the active ingredient, imidacloprid. If this neonicotinoid product is withdrawn, the potato industry in particular would be hard hit in controlling Colorado potato beetle and other insects.

An update of re-evaluation timelines was shared by Margherita Conti, director-general, value assessment and re-evaluation management directorate, Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA).

“The public consultation to date has garnered 31,000 comments and we expect that number to increase substantially,” she said, referring to the comment period extended to March 23. “Additional aquatic toxicity data are anticipated from Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.”

Decisions on imidacloprid as well as clothianidin and thiamethoxam are expected in late November 2017. Next steps may include changes to the use pattern – currently in-furrow and seed-piece treatment in potatoes — depending on new environmental data and any compelling science produced.

Bayer CropScience, the manufacturer of Admire (imidacloprid), is deeply involved in providing more scientific data on the broad-spectrum insecticide. Luc Bourgeois, issues manager, says, “We have no reported incident with imidacloprid after 20 years of use. Like any product, we need to minimize risk. Risk is equal to toxicity and exposure.”

In his presentation, Bourgeois explained that PMRA’s proposed ban of imidacloprid is based only on laboratory studies and the chemical’s effect on aquatic invertebrates.

“It’s interesting to note that a high level of emergence of mayfly was witnessed in the river valleys of the Red River and Assiniboine Rivers in 2016,” said Bourgeois. If residues of imidacloprid were problematic, then these insects would have been killed. They were not.

“The PMRA’s proposed ban is motivated by 604 samples from 14 sites, primarily in three Ontario watersheds. With today’s technology, we can find minute levels of the pesticide, but they are below any risk to mayflies.”

Bourgeois concludes that mitigation and stewardship should be evaluated prior to an outright ban. He questions the validity of new water thresholds that were based on laboratory data only. He knows of no evidence of harm to water invertebrates. Bayer CropScience data shows a reduction in concentrations of imidacloprid in water samples taken in 2015 and 2016 despite an increase in product use.

Charles Stevens, chair of the crop, plant protection and environment committee, helped draft a resolution that CHC lobby Health Canada and PMRA to continue their commitment to not deregister crop protection products when there is no replacement product that the horticultural industry considers effective. The committee also supports sponsoring on-farm tour experiences for PMRA staff on an annual basis.

Cost of maintaining public trust

To date, Canada’s fruit and vegetable sector has not suffered the crises of public confidence that other sectors have endured:  avian influenza in poultry, mad cow disease (BSE) in beef cattle, Listeria-tainted pork products. However, growers are realizing the need to tell the story of how fruit and vegetables get to consumers’ plates in an increasingly urbanized Canada.

Guest speaker Marty Seymour, director of industry and stakeholder relations, Farm Credit Canada, underscored the opportunity. In citing recent polls from the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, he said the battleground is in the middle – about 50 per cent of consumers say they’re not sure the food system is headed in the right direction.

“That’s an opportunity to talk about food, not production,” said Seymour. “Build trust through shared values. Science is less relatable to consumers. Build lines of communication not lines in the sand.”

To that point, members of the CHC labour committee, chaired by Murray Porteous, are looking to tell the story of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP).  Most Canadians, including politicians, need to be reminded that it’s a Canadians first program; however, few Canadians apply to work in orchards, vegetable fields and greenhouses often in rural areas. The SAWP program has signed agreements with Mexico and Caribbean countries to supply reliable workers. In turn, these workers are paid according to Canadian standard wages, more than could be earned in their home countries. The benefits that flow back to their families are rarely publicized in their own words, including the ability to educate their children and start small businesses. While in Canada, the workers provide an economic boost to their local communities. These essential messages will be communicated in a more proactive way in the future.

As growers headed home from Winnipeg, Marty Seymour provided a pep talk.

“Agriculture is a big deal worth 6.6% of Canada’s GDP. The biggest project in Canada is seeding every spring.”