Numerous factors influencing Canadian agriculture and food supply are cause for growing concern and demand a close look at the guiding principles for Canadian food production to ensure a future that is sustainable and aligned with our values as a nation, says Ghislain Gervais, president of La Coop fédérée, the largest agri-food group in Quebec and the second largest in Canada.
“The NAFTA renegotiation raises issues related to the protection of supply management, which is significant for Canadian agriculture. It is question of Canada retaining its ability to feed its population through local farmers and processors, and whether we want to keep family farms and farms with a human dimension,” says Mr. Gervais.
Shifting consumer demands are already driving changes in agricultural practices. “You only have to look as far as the diversified range of products on offer for proof that both producers and processers are responsive to consumer expectations. For example, we now find not only white eggs, but brown ones, free-range eggs, etc. on our grocery store shelves,” says Mr. Gervais.
“Consumers rightly demand a more humane treatment of animals, and all animal production has been – or will be – facing new standards. This implies extra costs for farmers. At the same time, we have to stay competitive with countries that have more lenient standards.
“For the Canadian agri-food sector, the priority is to produce quality food that meets the highest food safety standards in the world,” he says. But how to achieve this high quality, meet consumer expectations and stay competitive at the same time? Supply management has to be part of the answer, believes Mr. Gervais. “One of the benefits of supply management is that it’s a system that doesn’t require subsidies. Producers receive a price that covers their cost of production.”
This enables the presence of smaller farms at a time when fewer people or groups control important segments of the agri-food industry globally, explains Mr. Gervais. “Supply management means local agriculture, family-run farms, and high-quality, diversified products.
“For example, an average dairy farm in California has more than 1,050 cows, whereas the average herd in Canada had only 85 cows in 2016,” he says. “And contrary to what critics of supply management have said, the price of milk paid by consumers in Canada is comparable to that of the United States.”
A Université Laval study showed that over a period of four consecutive months, from January to April 2017, the price of milk in Quebec City was $1.58 per litre, the same price as in Washington. The price differential for one kilo of cheese between the two cities was just 20 cents.
Supply management’s direct and indirect contribution to Canada’s gross domestic product is valued at $13.1-billion, according to a Boston Consulting Group study published in 2015.
“Abolishing supply management would mean that 40 per cent of the Canadian dairy industry, or between 4,500 and 5,000 family farms, would disappear over the medium term,” says Mr. Gervais. “This would also translate into a decline in GDP of $2.1-billion to $3.5-billion and putting 24,000 people out of work.”
For Mr. Gervais, supply management is closely linked to Canada’s food security and sustainability, goals that are well aligned with the co-operative model, which supports decision-making with a long-term perspective. “Co-operatives don’t have to meet the demands for quarterly returns like a publicly traded company. They retain an important human dimension,” he says. “This being said, these elements do not make them inefficient organizations.”
With five years to go until its 100th anniversary, La Coop fédérée has passed “through difficult times, but is still standing,” says Mr. Gervais, adding that with all its affiliated co-operatives, La Coop fédérée has nearly 18,000 employees with a combined total revenue of $9.2-billion.
“Co-operatives are resilient, but we realize that we need to be able to reinvent ourselves and challenge our ways of doing things,” he says. The La Coop network recently launched the Vision 2020 project to ensure the co-operative will reach – and continue beyond – the 100-year mark.
“There is nothing more noble for a society than the ability to feed itself,” says Mr. Gervais. “That’s also our mission at La Coop fédérée: to help feed Canada and the world.”
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