This summer, Farm Forum contributor, Gerald Pilger, had the opportunity to sit down with former Saskatchewan premier, Brad Wall, and talk with him about society’s increasing criticism of the energy and agriculture sectors in Canada. Wall is currently an advisor on energy and agri-food business in the Calgary office of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.
FF: Both energy and agri-food sectors are under increasing public scrutiny. Is there a connection to be made here?
BW: I think what energy has faced, especially in the oil sands, is more acute in terms of opposition than conventional oil or modern agriculture. The cautionary tale of the oil sands could help motivate all of the stakeholders in agriculture, from the large organizations to distribution networks and especially to farmers. I have hope that we can be successful in terms of not just defending, but promoting modern agriculture for the huge platform of economic opportunity that it is in this country.
With respect to the oil sands, opponents were able to brand it in a negative way — “tar sands” and “dirty oil” are good examples. We’ve got to be careful in agriculture to avoid that and maybe to try to change some things. “Genetically modified organism” is not the right name and words matter. It’s plant science! It’s the evolution of plant science that has helped feed the world since crop science began in earnest over the last 10 decades.
We’ve got to be on our toes. We have to be ready to react to those who perhaps have a misunderstanding of, or misinformation about, modern agriculture and its relationship to the environment. But we also have to be able to tell our story in a positive way.
FF: In a 2016 speech to the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, you stated the energy sector was losing the PR battle to environmentalists. Has the oil industry made mistakes and, if so, what can agriculture learn from those mistakes?
BW: Well I think it has, but we shouldn’t be too hard on them because even governments, including mine, that understand how important the oil industry is to their budgets and to the quality of life of their citizens could have been a bit more proactive.
But one thing agriculture can learn from this is about branding. We need to tell our story about environmental efficacy, which is an advantage of modern agriculture, especially when it comes to climate change. There is a great story to tell here.
Here’s why I have a bit of hope. This summer, we saw Canadians very much focused on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. And the more they found out about it, the more popular support for the pipeline grew. BC wide, it got 53 per cent support. That should give us great hope to tell our story in agriculture. If we can appeal to the pragmatism of Canadians, the pride of Canadians, and get the facts out, we should be very hopeful that we can avoid some of the challenges that oil has faced.
FF: Agriculture is a diverse industry with differing opinions and voices, which can sometimes be at odds with each other — conventional and organic production, for example. How does agriculture develop a common message and a single voice?
BW: Everyone in agriculture has to remember the big picture, which is that we are all interested in global food security and are trying to maximize the benefit for our own quality of life while doing things as sustainably as possible. That’s the big story to focus on. That doesn’t mean we can’t have disagreements about which crops are better and which method of production might be better. That’s fine if we understand that those are like family discussions and families need to stick together when they are challenged.
There is a lot that unites us. The quality of life afforded by agriculture in rural Saskatchewan and rural Canada is different from anything else. Raising your family out on the farm like my nephew does, or maybe you’re a smaller organic farmer — the quality of life is the same. We want that option for families, so that should unite us.
FF: Energy and manufacturing sectors have received a lot of government support recently. Should agriculture similarly be seeking public support for losses arising from transportation bottlenecks, trade barriers, regulatory delays, pesticide bans, and a host of other issues over which the industry has little or no control?
BW: It’s not unreasonable if the precedent has been set in these other sectors, as it has. It has also been set in the case of the European trade deal.
The Harper government committed to compensation for producers in supply management sectors. So if that’s true in terms of dislocation caused by a trade agreement in that particular agricultural sector, or these other examples you highlighted, I think it would warrant the government looking at these issues.
Especially on the transportation side — without pipelines, we are going to have more and more oil on rail, which displaces not just grain but potash and everything else. The federal government is going have to figure out how it is going to treat producers who are really messed up by that in terms of price. For the first time in what — 35, 40 years — we have lost Japan as a customer because we are not reliable when it comes to delivering our grain.
Governments better be prepared to stand with farmers if it is government, either inadvertently or on purpose, that has caused these troubles.
FF: Over the years there has been a marked shift in the way Canadian agriculture has marketed itself — from the breadbasket of the world to the high-quality producer to the low-cost competitive supplier. Do we need to change our brand again?
BW: Well, what I am most worried about, and I did a lot of trade missions in Asia, is our brand as a reliable supplier.
That would be the one I would focus on. I think that’s why we lost Japan. It wasn’t a quality concern. It wasn’t a price concern. We just weren’t reliable.
FF: You have publicly stated that Canada needs to do its part in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, and a lot of money and work has been invested in things like carbon capture and storage (CCS), carbon levies and cap and trade systems. Yet in most places agriculture is not rewarded for sequestration of carbon with practices like zero tillage. Should these carbon-reducing practices be rewarded and, if so, how?
BW: Absolutely! Have you helped achieve the national targets? Well if we start counting all the investments like CCS and what agriculture does, you can make an economic and a measurable case that farmers help. That ensures we can avoid pricing carbon for our trade-exposed industries, like agriculture, and that is a benefit for farmers.
FF: Any final thoughts about the similar challenges to energy and agriculture in Canada?
BW: We are always striving to be better as an industry. Governments need to be sure, both in energy and agriculture, that there is the appropriate balance in regulation so we are as sustainable and responsible as we can be in our practices.
My wrap up point is: give me another country in the world that is as blessed as we are with these resources and this potential, and which makes as much a priority of environmental matters as Canada. There just isn’t one! Yet we are the first ones to be critical of ourselves.
—This interview has been edited and condensed.