Local Food Act (Second Reading Debate)April 18, 2013
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: I’m pleased to rise today to speak to Bill 36, the Local Food Act. I think introducing a food act is an opportunity. A food act is an opportunity to address the real challenges we are facing in our food system, to look at the system from field to fork and see what is working and where the system can be improved. It’s an opportunity to address the challenges our farmers are facing, such as red tape, spiralling hydro costs and the fact that government has become increasingly urban-focused; to look at the fact that our small abattoirs are closing; to examine the skills shortages in agriculture and food processing-challenges that are preventing our agri-businesses and our food processors from expanding.
Unfortunately, as Sustain Ontario said last time this bill was introduced, the Local Food Act introduced by this government missed many opportunities. The first Local Food Act that this government introduced had a great name, but it was all fluff. After four months of the Legislature being prorogued and organizations and members of the opposition pointing out that the bill didn’t accomplish anything, the government has introduced essentially the same bill.
There is still nothing of substance. There is nothing in the bill that would make a significant impact on growing, availability or consumption of local food. I think it’s very unfortunate the government didn’t listen to groups like Sustain Ontario, which took the time to really look at our agriculture industry and our food system and put forward proposals that would have had a positive impact. They were asked to lead a consultation, which they did. In April 2012, they released a draft Ontario Food and Nutrition Strategy. It contained 81 specific actions or strategies that they felt the government should consider, and they provided examples of policies and policy-related activities that would support each one of these 81 actions. All of that work, all of that consultation and there was only one of those initiatives reflected in this bill: just government procurement.
In July, Sustain Ontario released drafting notes they prepared for the government which addressed food, education, land use planning, farm stewardship and ecological practices and reducing waste in our food system. They provided a summary of what they’d hoped they would see in the food act, which was endorsed by almost 80 different local food groups, companies and farmers. It stated that the following three key points needed to be addressed in the food act:
Again, the only thing this bill attempts to address is the government procurement portion. There is nothing to recognize the many parts of our food system, nothing to meet the request for more food education and providing people with skills and knowledge to support healthy eating habits; nothing to increase access for Ontarians to local food or address the economic impact of our food system.
In her remarks on this bill last week, the Minister of Agriculture talked about food from farm gate to dinner plate. We know that food doesn’t start at the farm gate. It starts with the hard work of farmers in the barns and in the fields. If we don’t address the challenges the farmers are facing, as well as those with distribution, processing and access to local food, we cannot really have a meaningful impact.
It is unfortunate the government didn’t listen to agriculture groups such as the Christian Farmers or the National Farmers Union, who, in their proposal, addressed the need to bring more young people into agriculture, protecting our environment and ensuring our farms are financially viable.
In their commentary last fall, the OFA laid out what they felt should be included in the food act, such as adoption of market structures to enhance farmer empowerment in the marketplace through value-added initiatives; farmers’ markets and co-operatives; reintroduction of food and agriculture in the school curriculum; and a modern and efficient system for storage, transportation and distribution of food.
But it’s not just agriculture organizations that were asking for a more substantial food act. The Waterloo Region Food System Roundtable wrote to the Premier before the introduction and asked that she “broaden the act’s scope in order to make it a meaningful and comprehensive policy that is able to address a wide range of food issues in Ontario.”
Following the introduction, they issued a news release which said, “CELA welcomes the introduction of the government’s local food bill yesterday but notes that some additional amendments would improve the bill, as outlined in the CELA’s model food bill.” The release went on to say, “Joseph Castrilli, counsel at CELA, notes that `the bill, although slightly improved from its previous iteration, would significantly benefit from stronger legislative language, greater accountability, and a broader scope.'”
Mr. Speaker, I understand their disappointment. The model local food act drafted by the Canadian Environmental Law Association was 28 pages long, fully researched and properly drafted, and you will be aware that we managed to get about a page and a half in the one the government has introduced. It contained proposals to enhance government coordination by establishing an interministerial committee requiring the minister to look at barriers to production, distribution and consumer markets, as well as barriers that limit access by consumers to local food stocks. Their model food act included proposals to increase food education and food literacy. The section on local food procurement required public sector organizations and ministries to increase their procurement of local sustainable or local organic food annually until such procurements constituted a percentage of the overall food budget specified through relevant targets-set targets and try to achieve them.
We appreciated all these ideas that these organizations put forward, and I’m disappointed that they don’t see their work reflected in this bill and that the government has missed an opportunity to implement those initiatives-
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: We appreciated all the ideas that these organizations put forward, and I’m disappointed that we don’t see that work reflected in this bill and that the government has missed the opportunity to implement those initiatives which would have strengthened our food system.
On March 28, with the reintroduction of the Local Food Act, a number of organizations wrote joint letters to the Premier to share their thoughts about what was missing in this bill. The letter came from-and I list them here-the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, Food Share, Sustain Ontario, sustainable food production, Food Forward, Toronto Food Policy Council, Holland Marsh Growers’ Association, Organic Council of Ontario, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association and Ontario Farm Fresh. In the letter, they said, “Premier, we also feel the Local Food Act can and should do more than promote awareness and strive to improve procurement.”
The second one: “Likewise, a Local Food Act should also address the very fundamental issue of food access-the ability of all Ontarians to procure nutritious and culturally acceptable food at all times.”
I’m also disappointed that we don’t see many of these ideas that we put forward in our agriculture, food and rural affairs white paper, Paths to Prosperity: Respect for Rural Ontario. We proposed a comprehensive Ontario food act that would not only have the government show leadership in local food procurement, but would help our farmers, food processors and agribusinesses by reducing red tape and supporting our Ontario food system.
As we state in our white paper, to have an impact, the legislation needs to address our entire food system from field to fork, not farm gate to dinner plate, and contain real, meaningful changes. Our Ontario food act would also include our proposals for a dedicated fund for our business risk management program and the one-window access to government for farmers and agribusinesses.
We laid out our real changes that would have strengthened our agriculture industry, increased access to local food and helped our food processors, but the government has chosen not to incorporate any of our proposals. In fact, this is essentially the same bill that was introduced last fall. At that time, local food group Food Forward said, “The Local Food Act must be strengthened to create further goals, targets, research, and support for hospitals, universities, and all other public institutions, to increase the amount of fresh, local, and ecologically produced food, as suggested by Sustain Ontario.”
In their blog, the Christian Farmers said, “The proposed Local Food Act is one that can be considered from more angles than it is currently envisioned.” They went on to say that “the local food movement is about more than government procurement targets. For example, farmers focused on supplying farmers’ markets, community-shared agriculture and agri-tourism are all important parts of local food production. With some consideration, we may find that the Local Food Act may be able to provide additional tools for these producers to succeed in the long term.”
In fact, even the Premier acknowledged-and I think this is very interesting-that the Local Food Act introduced last fall was weak when in her leadership campaign she committed to introducing a strengthened Local Food Act. But the new bill that was introduced a few weeks ago still has no substance, and most of what is contained in the bill the government already had power to do.
The bill states that the minister shall consult before establishing a goal or target. There is absolutely nothing that would prevent the minister from consulting right now without the bill. In fact, we wish she would do a little more of that. We wish she had consulted with the farming community before allowing the new Ontario Tire Stewardship fees for agricultural tires, which will result in massive increases. The bill states, “The minister may, to further the purposes of this act”-and I want to emphasize the word “may”-“establish goals or targets to aspire to in respect of local food.” That’s something that she, again, can do right now; she doesn’t need a bill to do that. This is an area that I’m going to address later in more detail, but I want to make it clear that this is something that the Minister of Agriculture and Food could have done two months ago. Since there is no requirement in legislation to actually achieve the goals, there is absolutely no need to put it into legislation.
The bill requires a report on local food, but there is nothing to prevent the government from producing that right now. In fact, it seems logical to me that before creating a Local Food Act, you would look at the status of local food in Ontario-what has already been done and whether it is actually working. If the government had done a proper job in creating a local food act, they should be able to provide us with that report today. The fact that they haven’t demonstrates that this bill is much more about public relations than it is about making Ontario’s food system work. In fact, the only thing in the whole bill that requires legislation is in the creation of a Local Food Week, which unfortunately the government has timed to replace the existing Ontario Agriculture Week.
In 1998, Bert Johnson, the MPP from Perth, introduced a private member’s bill which established the week before Thanksgiving as Ontario Agriculture Week. For the past 15 years, that has been the week when we recognize the contributions of Ontario’s farmers, from the statements in this Legislature to the blue tractors that have been on the front lawn to the events in rural communities across Ontario. As a former Liberal agriculture minister, Steve Peters, said, “It is important that we all take time to reflect on where our food and agricultural products come from and recognize the hard work of our farmers.”
We recognize the importance of celebrating local food, but it should not be at the expense of recognizing the many contributions of our farmers, not just for the food they produce, but how hard they work and their contribution to our economy and their work as stewards of the land.
Despite this, the Local Food Act, if passed as the Minister of Agriculture introduced it, would replace Ontario Agriculture Week. Yesterday, the parliamentary assistant of agriculture and food asked, “What’s wrong with that?” I want to ensure that all the members of the Legislature understand why this week matters.
Ontario Agriculture Week is about recognizing farmers who stay up all night caring for a sick animal. It’s about recognizing the farmers who worked together to ensure that after last summer’s drought, farmers got the hay they needed to feed their animals. It’s about recognizing that farmers work from sunrise to sunset and then far into the night to get their work done before it rains. It’s about recognizing farmers who don’t have weekends or holidays, because even on Christmas the cows need to be milked, the pigs need to be fed and the eggs need to be collected. It’s about recognizing that after all that, the farmer still makes time to help the community as a neighbour in need.
Ontario Agriculture Week is about recognizing that even when times get tough, when they are losing money on every hog, when frost kills the blossoms on the fruit trees and when weather destroys the crops they worked so hard to produce, our farmers keep going because we depend on them. We rely on them not just to put fresh food on our tables but as the backbone of our rural communities and a major part of our provincial economy.
In 2010, an OFA news release entitled “Ontario Celebrates More than Food During Agriculture Week” stated, “This week encourages Ontarians to reflect on the impact of agriculture for the province-not just as a source for food, but also as an important industry that provides reliable economic stimulus for Ontario.”
The legislation goes on to say, “The food and other agricultural products that sustain our lives are the result of the skill, hard work and dedication of Ontario’s farming communities and farm families. It is important to recognize and acknowledge this ongoing contribution by Ontario farmers to the quality of life of all our citizens.”
The Ontario PC caucus believes in Ontario Agriculture Week and we believe that we should continue to celebrate our farmers the week before Thanksgiving, as we have for the last 15 years. I don’t know whether the part-time Minister of Agriculture and Food didn’t know that it was Ontario Agriculture Week or simply didn’t understand the importance of recognizing the farmers. Either way, I have to say that I’m very disappointed. This government continues to forget about the importance of rural Ontario and agriculture until it’s time for a photo opportunity.
I know that the minister has been hearing from people concerned about her proposal to replace Agriculture Week. One person said in an email-I got these emails, and they were copies of the ones that were sent to the Premier-“Our very existence relies on these hard-working farming individuals. Please do not devalue their service by removing the essence of the week.”
Another one said, “Agriculture is much more than `local food’ and requires broader recognition. Ontario producers export significant amounts of the product it produces, providing huge economic benefit back to the Ontario economy through processing, transportation and other services-far beyond what local foods provide in return.
I’m pleased to announce that the PC caucus will be putting forward an amendment to save Ontario Agriculture Week, and I hope that all members of this Legislature will support that amendment. We will move Local Food Week so we have a separate week to celebrate the food that our farmers grow, as well as all the other people involved in our local food system-people involved in our farmers’ markets, our local food organization and our Ontario Food Terminal.
It is a time to recognize the restaurants that make the effort to source from Ontario’s farms, such as Cowbell here in Toronto, SixThirtyNine in Woodstock, Cedars and Co. in Ottawa, and Loblaws with Ontario corn-fed beef.
In addition to that amendment, I expect many agriculture and local food organizations will also have proposals for amendments. Already we’ve heard from a number of people who have expressed concerns about the areas that have been missed, such as food literacy and the challenges with food distribution, which I will be addressing later. I look forward to hearing from more of these groups and working with them to put forward amendments to try and make this a real Ontario food act, as we have proposed.
As I said earlier, this food act has missed some wonderful opportunities. Last year, as the first step in preparing our white paper on agriculture, food and rural affairs, we launched an extensive survey of farmers, agribusinesses and food processors. We recognize that all of these sectors are interrelated, and to have a strong food system, we need to look at the system as a whole and the challenges impacting each part. It’s not enough to introduce legislation with a nice title, set some goals and hope that the public sector will “aspire” to meet them.
We reached out to the farmers. We talked to the agricultural organizations and the local food groups. We met with the Ontario Independent Meat Processors. We consulted with food processors. We held round tables with agribusinesses. We asked them the biggest challenges their organization was facing: What was that biggest challenge? We asked them what the government’s priority should be. We asked food processors how much local food they were using; if they were sourcing items from other jurisdictions, and why; and what would make them use more local food. We asked about trade issues and staffing. We asked about what could strengthen their industry.
They told us there were some real challenges that their industries are facing, and some of them are caused, Mr. Speaker-and I’m sure that you would understand that-by the government. Every single one of the sectors told us that government red tape and paperwork is a significant challenge. All of them said they were impacted by increasing hydro costs. We heard from agribusinesses that they are worried about the impact of the declining horse racing industry.
I want to take a few minutes to talk about one of these challenges, because I think that this bill was a great opportunity for the government to address them. It was an opportunity to acknowledge the problems they have created and show that they have changed, but again, that opportunity was missed. As I said, the biggest challenge our farmers are facing is red tape and government paperwork. In our agricultural survey last summer, over 77% of farmers said that red tape was increasing. That’s consistent with the findings of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the CFIB.
When we asked the biggest challenges farmers were facing, one responded, “The mountain of paperwork and overwhelming lack of clarity in regulation means I spend too much time doing paperwork and not enough time scouting my fields and doing research and innovation to move my farm forward.”
Another said, “Red tape, plain and simple. Detracts focus from the job at hand, and I am always worried someone from one of the ministries will show up unexpectedly, use all of my time for that day (and probably many others, responding and complying with their whimsical findings) and cost me yet more money.”
When we asked processors about what products they had challenges sourcing from Ontario, one said, “Locally grown foods and products. Your regulations, for instance, killed the Ontario cheese industry.”
Recently, Darcy Higgins of Food Forward wrote, “A review of regulations that hamper small food enterprise could also lead to the creation of new jobs in Ontario. In rural, suburban, and urban parts of the province, entrepreneurs are finding unclear and outdated, intelligence-challenging regulations that don’t affect health, safety, or the environment but hamper their ability to undertake a business venture.” When I met with Darcy, he told me about the red tape challenges that food entrepreneurs here in Toronto are facing.
In her leadoff, the Minister of Agriculture and Food talked about consultations that her government had done. After this bill was introduced the first time, CBC Radio interviewed an Ottawa farmer, Robin Turner, who attended one of the round tables, and he said, “Another big part of it I think that the Local Food Act doesn’t really address is increasing access to all the services and transforming food. For example, in Dan’s case, getting abattoirs that are closer and potentially more smaller abattoirs.”
He went on to say, “One of the hard things in Ontario-and I brought this up in our meeting with the minister; he didn’t really say much about it-is that this province had a thriving meat processing and dairy cheese industry 30 or 40 years ago. When I was a kid, when I grew up, there were five cheese factories within half an hour of where I lived. And they are all gone because of regulation.”
In our recent white paper, the PC caucus put forward a number of initiatives to address this regulatory burden. We would review licences, permits and certificates to see which ones could be combined and which ones could be eliminated.
In our survey, agribusinesses found they had to have up to 20 licences and permits to operate, each with its own application form and-you can be sure, Mr. Speaker-each with its own fee. The government claims to have cut red tape, but farmers and agribusinesses and food processors tell us it’s increasing. In fact, 85.7% of the agribusinesses said it was increasing.
We would reduce the regulatory burden by at least 33% over three years, and if we miss our target, cabinet-including the Premier-would have their pay docked. There’s no better way to get people to comply, Mr. Speaker.
In our survey, we asked farmers what ministries they deal with, and of course they said OMAFRA. But they also reported dealing with the Ministries of the Environment, Natural Resources, Finance, Labour, Health, Energy, Transportation, Municipal Affairs, Northern Development, Aboriginal Affairs and the Ministry of Culture.
More disturbing were the reports from farmers having to apply to different ministries on the same issue and getting different answers. It shouldn’t be up to farmers to sort out a dispute between the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of the Environment.
Almost two years ago, we proposed a one-window access to government for farmers and agribusinesses. Four months later, the government copied that commitment, but they have done nothing to actually achieve it. We would implement it.
Internal documents from OMAFRA show that in their staff consultation they weren’t even looking at the one-window approach. At a staff town hall meeting last October, the ministry asked, “What is the strongest opportunity you see to provide clients with a `no wrong window’ approach to accessing the full range of government services, expertise and products?” One of the answers they received from staff was that they should implement a one-window approach.
I might point out that later in that consultation, the ministry asked how they could increase employee satisfaction and engagement, and the response was that they should listen to the staff-and in this case, we agree.
Implementing the one-window approach, reducing regulations and reviewing licences are three steps to reduce red tape and regulation which could have been implemented in this Local Food Act-another missed opportunity.
In our survey of food processors, one of the groups that said they were particularly challenged by red tape was local abattoirs. We also heard from the Ontario Independent Meat Processors that the number one reason they were contacted by their members in 2011 was for help dealing with government regulations.
Our first priority, as it always has been, is food safety, but we need to look at redundant regulations, which have no value and are forcing abattoirs out of business. Ontario has already lost many of its small abattoirs. There are whole regions that no longer have local abattoirs. Cutting red tape is only a small part of the solution, but it would be a good first step.
When we asked processors about the biggest challenge their company was facing, one said it was how to get the government to recognize the huge benefit of small meat processors in the province. Many people have pointed out that it is impossible to have local meat without our local abattoirs, but this act does nothing to address that problem.
It also does nothing to address the problem of food distribution. Many groups across Ontario have recognized the need to bring local food together in order to market it and improve food distribution. Sustain Ontario recently hosted a seminar on this topic and said, “Food hubs can be an integral part in fulfilling the missing link of a local food system and alleviate barriers that often highlight the limited resources in the who, what, where and how of local food sourcing.”
In their recent green paper series, the Greenbelt Foundation fund stated, “Lack of access to products from Ontario farms is a fundamental barrier to increase the amount of Ontario food in public institutions.” They identified that one of the obstacles to government procurement of local food was that supply needed to be aggregated.
This mirrors what we heard from Michigan about their experience with Buy Michigan First through their correctional facilities. They told us that one of the challenges they faced in sourcing local foods was that they didn’t have the staff resources to contact all the different suppliers and visit multiple locations. It needed to be brought together.
In Ontario, we are fortunate to have the Ontario Food Terminal here in Toronto, which does an excellent job of bringing together wholesalers to sell to our restaurants, processors and stores. However, as we look to expand and strengthen our food system, it’s clear that more needs to be done to bring together local food, increase market access for farmers, and make it easier for local retailers and restaurants to access fresh Ontario food.
That’s why, in our white paper, we are proposing a regional food terminal, likely located in southwestern Ontario, in the London area, or in eastern Ontario, near Ottawa. In both of these areas, local food is being loaded onto trucks and shipped to the food terminal in Toronto, only to be resold, loaded on new trucks and shipped back. As Ottawa local food group Just Food said, “Not only does a local food terminal reduce the transport distances of food (currently, a percentage of the produce from the Ontario region travels to Toronto, to then be bought by an Ottawa-based food supplier and transported back), but it also creates significant employment and volunteer opportunities for the local economy and more effective coordination of the distribution of locally produced food.”
Mr. Speaker, creating a new food terminal would create opportunities for food wholesalers that can’t get space at the Ontario Food Terminal. It would reduce our carbon footprint, encourage local food and create jobs. It is a bold idea, but it is something that should be in the food act. The fact that the government chose not to include it is just another example of a missed opportunity.
One of the other issues we heard about in our surveys was the spiralling cost of hydro. Ninety-seven per cent of farmers said they had been impacted by the increasing cost of hydro, and over 60% said that impact had been significant. When asked about the biggest challenges his farm is facing, one farmer in southwestern Ontario said, “Hydro metering, solar and wind are ludicrous until you can tell me how to recoup these extra costs.”
Hon. John Gerretsen: Speaker, I know that you give great latitude to what a member can speak about when we speak about a particular bill, but this is about the Local Food Act for the province of Ontario. I wonder if you could remind the member to restrict in sort of a general way his comments to the great quality of the local food that’s being produced in Ontario.
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): I would obviously stand up if I felt the member was veering too far. I think actually 99% of it has been involved with food and agriculture. So I can’t agree with the member on this one. Go ahead.
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I would just point out to the objector that the problem is that all of this should have been in the food act and it’s not. That’s the point I’m trying to make.
Earlier this week, we heard that Ontarians are going to have to pay $275 million-$85 million more than the government claimed-for the relocation of the Mississauga plant. Again, that will be added on to our hydro bills. For many commodities grown in Ontario, the price is set on the Chicago exchange. If the cost of production increases, our farmers don’t have an ability to pass it on. It comes straight out of their pocket, just like the recent Ontario Tire Stewardship fee increase approved by this government. Without consulting with farmers, this government approved eco fees that would increase the cost of a set of tires for a 1900 John Deere to $729, up from $61. The new tire fees for a John Deere 9770 combine increased to $1,644 from $91. The OFA said, “It’s a drastic price”-
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): The Attorney General, things were so nice in here a few minutes ago, and you seem to be really stepping it up a notch. Would you like to cut it back a bit, please? Thank you.
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: The OFA said, “It’s a drastic price increase that will be detrimental to Ontario farm businesses and the rural communities they support. The increase is all the more devastating because it has come as such a surprise. There were no opportunities for the public, or Ontario’s largest general farm organization, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), to comment on these increases. Ontario farmers were not informed about these changes.” That’s their quote.
I’ve heard from hundreds of farmers who are upset about these fees. They’ve sent emails, they’ve called and they’ve signed petitions. But even though the Premier and part-time Minister of Agriculture acknowledged the problem several weeks ago, on April 1, the massive increases went into effect.
On Friday, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture-not the Minister of Agriculture-announced some changes to the fees, but they still represent a massive increase to farmers. As my colleague from Kitchener-Conestoga pointed out in his question on Monday, it’s still a 1,000% increase, with another 1,000% increase coming down the road.
For tires on a John Deere combine, the new proposed fee will be $823 compared to our neighbours, Manitoba, where the fee will be $24, and Quebec, where those tires are exempt and there will be no additional fees.
Farmers have been speaking out against these increases. Our tire dealerships have been telling the government that it will cost Ontario sales. Our party launched a petition and has raised it repeatedly in this Legislature, but the person who has been missing in action is the Minister of Agriculture. That is why it has been the Ontario Federation of Agriculture negotiating with Ontario Tire Stewardship.
Why is the Minister of Agriculture standing back and letting farmers get hit with this massive increase? Why did her government approve it without looking at the economic impact? The Premier has repeatedly said that she has taken on the role of minister to raise the profile of agriculture and food. It’s a typical response from this government: When there is a problem, they hold a photo op.
Premier, publicity isn’t the problem. The people of Ontario want to eat Ontario food. The problem is that no one in your government has been willing to stand up for the people who produce our food, and that hasn’t changed.
Farmers need someone who will consult with them before implementing policies that will impact them. No matter what ministry the policies fall under, they need someone who will address the challenges that Ontario agriculture faces.
Environics found that, “Ontario consumers are increasingly interested in reading origin labels on the food they purchase, with a preference for buying locally grown. A vast majority also state that they would buy more locally sourced food if they could find it in the grocery store.”
Two months ago, when this minister was sworn in-the first time-I expressed my concerns that the Minister of Agriculture had been demoted to a part-time job. Many farmers expressed the same concern. One eastern Ontario farmer said, “Wynne needs to realize that if agriculture is to survive in Ontario, it does indeed need a full-time agriculture minister and one that is definitely in tune with where agriculture is and how important it is to the province.”
A professional agrologist wrote, “I know from my experience from working with William Stewart, Jack Riddle, Dave Ramsay, Elmer Buchanan and other agriculture ministers that this responsible position requires full-time representation and long hours of work seven days a week.”
Here in Ontario we grow hundreds of commodities. Understanding the issues of our many farmers and food processors, as well as our different regions, is a challenging job. An essential part of the job is having the time to meet with all the different organizations and to go out to talk to the farmers, visit the farms and see first-hand the challenges they are facing.
A month ago, I asked the Minister of Agriculture to go to eastern Ontario and visit farms that had been impacted by the drought, to talk to farmers who were suffering and to fix the flaws with the AgriRecovery program, which ended almost two months before the problem did.
I wrote to the Premier and asked her to extend the deadline, and when I didn’t receive a response, I raised it in the Legislature on March 5 to point out that the deadline was getting closer. But it wasn’t until March 15, hours before the deadline expired, that the Premier finally announced an extension. That doesn’t give farmers stability or ability to plan. Farmers need an agriculture minister who is addressing problems right away, not waiting until hours before the deadline or after the increases have gone into effect.
In our meeting weeks ago, I raised another issue with the Premier, the lack of a proper appeal process for farmers who disagree with AgriStability decisions. Under the current process, farmers can appeal Agricorp decisions to the Ontario AgriStability Review Committee. However, the decisions are non-binding. That means that even if the review committee finds in favour of the farmer, Agricorp can still choose to ignore it and stick with their original finding. The former minister justified it by saying it was a federal requirement; however, a federal spokesman said in a recent newspaper article that even though the committee’s decision is not binding, in most jurisdictions-not in Ontario but in most jurisdictions-the appeal decision was upheld.
In Ontario, this has not been the case. I’ve heard from multiple farmers who went through the time, effort and expense for an appeal that the committee found that Agricorp had not applied the rules fairly, but Agricorp chose to ignore the ruling. These are farmers who paid the premiums for the program. I raised this issue with the Premier weeks ago. She was already aware of the issue but, to date, we’ve had no action on the problem.
Another thing we had hoped to see for our farmers in this bill was a dedicated fund for the Risk Management Program. For many years, the Ontario PC caucus has supported having an insurance program based on cost of production to help farmers manage their risk. In fact, in the two years before the program was introduced, the PC caucus called for a business risk management program in the Legislature 25 times. Tim Hudak repeated our commitment to introduce the program at the Earlton and St. Thomas international plowing matches and in speeches at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers, the Ontario Cattlemen’s Association and Grain Farmers of Ontario.
We understand the need to manage the risk for both our farmers and our government, but the program as it’s designed today puts too much risk on our farmers. Each year, both the government and the farmers put the premiums into the program, but if the premiums aren’t used, the government can take their remaining premiums back. We don’t believe this is fair. We believe that it’s not the best way to manage risk. If premiums aren’t used, they should stay in the dedicated fund and be available for future years when the payout required is greater than the cap. That will help even out the good years with the bad, it will help manage the risk and it will benefit our farmers. It’s another initiative that we propose to put in this food act and that we were hoping we’d see in the bill.
I heard from one agriculture advocate who went into a classroom to talk to the students about local food. When he asked kids about their knowledge of agriculture, the most experienced was a child who had once been to a petting zoo.
There are a number of benefits to increasing food literacy, such as giving children the tools they need for a healthy diet, increasing awareness of local food and teaching students about our food system so those with an interest are encouraged to consider a career in agriculture or food processing.
That’s why we proposed to put food education in the curriculum and proposed a co-op program to give young people from cities who have an interest in food and agriculture the opportunity to experience farming and encourage them to consider jobs in that sector.
We believe that the best way to encourage people to choose healthy food and local food is through education: teaching them about nutrition and where our food comes from and giving them the skills to make good choices-not only while they’re students but throughout their lives.
This government believes that the solution is to ban or restrict certain foods in schools. In fact-and I think this is important, Mr. Speaker-on January 15, 2010, when the Premier was Minister of Education, she released the School Food and Beverage Policy, which restricts what food could be sold in our schools. She banned 500- millilitre containers of chocolate milk from all schools and 500- millilitre containers of white milk from elementary schools. Clearly, we do need food literacy if the Minister of Agriculture doesn’t know that milk is good for you.
Mr. Speaker, I’ve talked a lot today about what isn’t in the bill: addressing our challenges with red tape and hydro, improving local food distribution by bringing it together, and increasing food literacy. We also want to talk about some of the problems in the bill, such as the section on government procurement.
I have two specific concerns with that. First, there’s no requirement that the minister actually set targets. Not only does the act not set targets, it doesn’t even set a time frame in which the minister would be required to set targets. In fact, the government has indicated they may not set real targets at all. In a radio interview following the introduction of this bill last fall, the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs stated that he was hoping that as a result of this act the broader public sector would “ideally set targets for themselves” after they got through reading the act.
In her leadoff speech, the current minister said that there were some concerns that if we are “too prescriptive as a provincial government, we would put in place an undue burden on local communities, on municipalities and on producers. We don’t want to do that.” I hope she will clarify that statement and explain whether she’s in fact saying that, as minister, she will choose not to set actual targets.
My second concern is with the word “aspire.” In our briefing with the ministry, they called the goals “voluntary.” In other words, the broader public sector can choose to completely ignore the targets. There are already a number of hospitals, long-term-care homes, schools and municipalities that have taken steps to increase the amount of local food they have purchased and to make more local food available for sale in their facilities. I want to commend them for that. They’re already doing it because it’s the right thing to do for the health of the people in their facility, for the environment and for our farmers. But there’s nothing in this bill that would require our broader public sector to follow their example. These organizations are funded by taxpayers’ dollars. The people of Ontario have a right to expect that they will meet certain standards.
The PC caucus believes that the Ontario government should lead by example, by buying Ontario food. Ontario grows great, safe, nutritious food. Our farmers are hard-working and innovative. We believe that if government gets out of their way, they can compete with farmers around the world. Why wouldn’t we take real steps to support Ontario’s agriculture industry and ensure that our government is a real leader in local food?
In her speech, the Minister of Agriculture said that we could not set real targets for local food because of concerns from municipalities and producers. The reality is that many municipalities are far ahead of the Ontario government in local food. They have taken leadership roles in requiring that a percentage of the food purchased for their facilities be sourced locally. Toronto already requires a percentage of local food in their contracts with their food providers. There are municipalities, like Norfolk county, that have worked to increase the local food in their local hospital and long-term-care homes. In 2008, Markham council adopted a food policy that instructs their cafeteria services for the Markham Civic Centre to purchase a minimum of 10% of its food from certified Local Food Plus farmers and to increase that percentage by 5% every year thereafter. By 2009, the cafeteria service provider had already reached 25%. In November, as part of their official plan review, Sudbury held a workshop to look at their local food system, and one of the results that came forward was a proposal for specific targets.
The minister also cited concerns from producers. Just a few weeks ago in a pre-budget submission, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture said, “Our food strategy needs a set of an agreed-upon and measurable outcomes to guide the development of all agriculture and food-related policies. This will lead to focused and meaningful policies aimed at achieving goals for a sustainable food system.”
The Canadian National Food Strategy Framework recommends, “Canadian governments and public institutions lead by example and increase the utilization of Canadian-grown and processed products by at least 2% per year.” It seems everybody is setting goals and targets except our minister.
Interestingly, last fall, when the government introduced this bill, they said they could not set real targets. Then it was because of trade concerns. We believe that’s simply incorrect. I don’t believe there’s any jurisdiction with more restrictive rules to ensure free trade and non-discrimination than the European Union, and yet there are numerous examples of government policies supporting the purchase of local food, such as those in Italy and the United Kingdom
In the United States, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 allows schools to use geographic preference as a factor in procurement of food for school lunches. This is intended to allow schools to give preference to locally grown or raised products. In fact, governments around the world have created policies to bring local food into the schools, from Nova Scotia here in Canada to Brazil and Japan. In fact, the report Menu 2020: Ten Good Food Ideas for Ontario, released by Metcalf Foundation in June 2010 states, “Governments at all levels, particularly in Europe and the United States, are using sustainable food procurement policies to build healthier, more economically viable food and farming systems.”
The Ontario law firm of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell provided an opinion on the trade compliance of local food procurement policies to the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, which states in part: “In our view, local food procurement policies are entirely consistent with both international and domestic procurement rules. For the most part, these regimes simply do not apply to most local food procurement. Even where domestic procurement rules do apply, buy-local food policies would, if properly crafted, be compliant with those obligations.” They went on to say, “Food procurement policies would … be exempt under domestic trade regimes because they relate to legitimate objectives including environmental protection, public health promotion and food security.”
Their conclusion was, “For the above-noted reasons, there is simply no plausible basis for impugning the validity of a local food procurement policy under either international or domestic trade rules.”
One of the few changes in this version of the Local Food Act is that the minister will now be required to report on government actions on local food every three years. My concern is that since there is no requirement for sub-targets, that report may very well be meaningless. The minister can stand up every three years and say how much the government loves local food, and we have no way of measuring-
The Acting Speaker (Mr. Paul Miller): The ministers are having quite a loud conversation over here. I’m having trouble hearing the speaker. If you want to have a little quorum, you might want to go outside with it. Thanks.
Mr. Ernie Hardeman: The minister can stand up every three years and say how much the government loves local food, and we have no way of measuring whether or not things are actually getting better or worse. The minister will stand up and say, “We are supporting Foodland Ontario,” as every government has done since it was established in 1977. They will stand up and talk about how great Ontario food tastes and likely have a photo op, but the people of Ontario will have no way of knowing whether the government is purchasing more or less local food. They will have no way of measuring whether the availability of local food is increasing. For the report to matter, the minister has to be required to set real, measurable goals in the procurement of local food and in actions to improve production, distribution, availability and knowledge of local food, and then the minister has to be required to report on his or her progress towards meeting those goals. Mr. Speaker, this Local Food Act is a disappointment and a missed opportunity.
“2. The Minister of Agriculture and Food may establish”-may-“goals or targets to aspire to in respect of local food. The minister must engage in consultation before setting the goals or targets. The minister may direct a public sector organization to provide information that would assist the minister in establishing goals or targets”-may-“understanding steps that are being taken or have been taken to meet a goal or target, or assessing progress that is being made or has been made toward meeting a goal or target.
“3. The minister must prepare a report about local food activities at least once every three years”-end of explanation of the whole bill in its entirety. So it really points out-my whole presentation is more about what isn’t in the bill, because there is absolutely nothing in the bill.
This Local Food Act is a disappointment and a missed opportunity. It is disappointing that after all her commitment to introduce a strengthened food act, the Premier has made no substantial changes to the bill and taken no action to address the many issues facing our agriculture industry and the food processors. She has taken no action that would help get local food from our farm fields into stores and restaurants. She has taken no action to put real targets in place and commit this government to a leadership role in purchasing local foods.
We believe Ontario needs a real food act, one that addresses the many challenges our farmers are facing, such as red tape, spiralling hydro costs and a need for a dedicated fund for business risk management. We need a real food act that addresses the challenges with our food system, from the need to bring together supply through a regional food terminal, to red tape facing our processors, the lack of small abattoirs and the need for food literacy to be part of our curriculum.
While we are disappointed in the act that has been introduced, we are committed to work with stakeholder groups, processors and farmers to put forward amendments that will address some of these issues, to try and strengthen Ontario’s agriculture industry and our food system. We believe in the importance of local food and our farmers, and we believe that they deserve a real food act.