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Opinion: Canada needs a more ambitious agri-food policy

Commentary

Since 1867, Canadian agriculture has been one of two areas of joint federal-provincial-territorial jurisdiction. This has been both a blessing and a curse.

For most of that time, the two levels of government struggled with how to make the relationship work. Those struggles led governments to agree to the first Agriculture Policy Framework (APF) in 2003.

Almost 20 years later, the time has come to ask how the federal-provincial-territorial (FPT) policy framework can become a more strategic tool to support the agri-food system—a system that is responsible for one in eight Canadian jobs, seven percent of Canada’s GDP, $70 billion in exports, and is an essential tool in the fight against climate change.

The APF addressed concerns about program inconsistencies and inequities in federal spending across producers, regions, and commodities through five-year funding agreements.

But while the APF created stability, certainty, and relative equity, it should be properly characterized as a spending agreement. Governments themselves refer to it as a “$3 billion five-year investment.” The approximately $8 billion spent on business risk management programs over the agreement is an additional “investment.”

What the current agreement is not is a policy framework, in as much as one would expect a policy framework to define policy objectives or goals, a strategy through which to meet goals, and to generate programming solutions that implement a policy. These are important gaps and represent missed opportunities.

It is important to acknowledge the significant policy work and development that does go into the APF process. Across the country there are hundreds of officials that dedicate part or all of their time to the process. Ministers meet multiple times a year to offer political direction. Farm groups and other stakeholders engage in consultations and offer recommendations.

However, there are limitations to the status quo. Without a clear strategic element to the process, the renewal of five-year agreements ends up with high-level objectives such as “growing trade,” “advancing science and innovation,” and “supporting public trust.” Changes are biased toward tweaks or minor variations to the existing programming set, or, conversely, any significant changes are spread across broad programming areas, often driven more by tightening budgets than by changes in strategic direction.

A deep analysis and consultation should guide the renewal of a multi-billion dollar five-year agreement. This analysis should focus on the challenges and opportunities facing Canada’s agri-food system, including how its position, international customers, and competitors have changed. Not to mention how stakeholders’ preferences and aspirations—including farmers, processors, and consumers—have evolved. The analysis should be made public and be consulted on. It should also include a clear set of objectives, with targets, by which performance can be assessed and accountability encouraged.

The expectations for agriculture and food have never been greater.

The agri-food system would benefit from a renewed approach that builds on the existing spending agreement. A first step would be to have FPT governments develop terms of reference to establish a more strategic agenda to guide the current funding agreement.

This process should articulate objectives, again with measurable targets for the coming five years, a strategy for achieving them, and analysis/consultation of policy alternatives with programming concepts. The outcomes could then be reviewed and renewed through a public process.

The expectations for agriculture and food have never been greater. The time is right to make the existing framework more ambitious and transparent with agri-food policy development. Governments have set targets for exports and domestic sales, greenhouse gas emission reduction and biodiversity, food security, and more. The risks facing the sector, from erratic international market access and farm prices, increasing input costs, and shifting weather extremes have never been greater. The pressure to obtain new and renewed investment in agri-food processing is sobering.

In certain ways, governments have benefited from changes brought on by the pandemic. The business-as-usual approach was replaced by a need to get things done. In agri-food, for instance, long-standing barriers to both interprovincial meat trade and access to the international workforce critical to Canada’s domestic food supply were overcome by necessity.

No single level of government is responsible for turning these challenges into opportunities, and no single level of government can act independently. Therefore, FPT governments need to continue with a collaborative, solution-oriented mindset to deliver a genuinely national agri-food policy that can drive the public and private investments necessary for the agri-food system to thrive.

Canada experienced 150 years of challenging agri-food policy development. The APF was a step in the right direction. Now almost 20 years later the time has come to take another step forward and make the APF a true, and truly ambitious, policy framework.

On November 15, CAPI will host a webinar to take the pulse of the FPT relationship, agriculture’s most underappreciated relationship. Find more here.

Malcolm Jolley: Corked: Three ways your wine can be faulty

Commentary

It’s before the pandemic and a long table’s worth of wine journalists and sommeliers are sitting in the company of a winemaker from Italy and her importing agent. We are going to have lunch at a restaurant that’s a client of the agent’s, but first we’re going to taste a few of the wines.

The agent begins opening bottles and pouring the first wine, while the winemaker talks about what’s in our glasses. One by one we put our noses to the glass once or twice, and then begin giving each other nervous, knowing glances.

The winemaker takes a pause and puts her glass to her nose, shakes her head, and apologizes. The bottle is corked. A new bottle is opened and fresh glasses are produced. We hope it doesn’t happen again.

Corked, as a colloquial term, refers to wine that has been afflicted by a fault. Specifically the contents of a given bottle are tainted by the organic compound 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, which everyone in the wine trade abbreviates to TCA. TCA taint is one of three common wine faults. The other two are oxidation and Brettanomyces, which is almost always abbreviated to Brett.

These three are the faults one checks for when tasting wine at a restaurant. The server has not brought the wine to the customer to see if she likes it; he’s asking her if there is a problem with the wine before he pours around the table. If the wine is faulty, then it should be sent back in exchange for a new one, and the restaurant will either eat the cost or pursue a refund from the merchant who sold it to them.

Here is a quick look at the three common taints.

TCA (Cork Taint)

TCA taint can be distinguished from the other two in that it is uncontroversial: nobody has anything nice to say about it. The byproduct of a chemical reaction between chlorine and a particular micro-organism (mould), 2,4,6-trichloroanisole can lurk in organic materials like cork or wooden barrels. The irony of TCA is that it was born from stricter hygiene in modern wine making: chlorine is used to sanitize to avoid other faults.

The good news is that strong cork taint is easy for anyone to detect: the wine will smell and taste like cardboard. The bad news is that the taint isn’t always that strong and can sometimes elude a sniff test. The resulting wine from marginal cork taint is muted; more an absence of fruit flavour than the presence of cardboard. Marginal cork taint can engender debate between tasters: some suspecting it, some insisting the wine is fine. The surefire way to confirm marginal cork taint is to taste a wine with it against the same wine without it. The contrast is always dramatic. If I suspect marginal cork taint in a wine I have ordered at a restaurant but am not wholly sure, I’ll ask the sommelier or server to taste it as well, in the hopes that she has a memory of what the wine should taste like.

The other good news about TCA is that there is much less of it out there than there used to be. This is partly because many wine producers have switched to non-cork bottle closures, especially for wines not meant to be aged very long (i.e. most wines), and also due to innovations in natural cork making to avoid it.

Oxidation

Wine has three natural enemies: heat, light and air. The part of air that is problematic to wine is oxygen. If too much of it gets in and around wine at the wrong time as it is being made, or at any time after, then it will kickstart the natural process of turning wine into vinegar.

Some wines, like sherry or vin jaune from the Jura region of France, are meant to be oxidized, but the process of introducing oxygen to the wine is controlled. Oxidation is considered a fault when it happens contrary to intent. Small amounts of oxygen exposure can result in the phenomenon of volatile acidity in some wines, which can give them the aroma of nail polish. Whether this is a fault or a derivable seasoning to the wine, at least in small doses, is a matter of taste.

Oxidation can also happen if a combination of warmth, light, and oxygen affect the wine from poor storage. A bottle of wine that’s sat on a store shelf for a year might well end up oxidized. It will taste musty and stale, devoid of fruit flavours and on its way to being part of a salad dressing. Beware of too good to be true bottles of bargain-priced wine that are more than a few years old.

Brettanomyces (Brett)

Another fault that feeds on oxygen is Brett. This fault is tricky because, as with volatile acidity, there are some wine enthusiasts who like it. Others despise it. Brett is a yeast, and the character it imparts on wines is sometimes called animal or barnyard. That character is also sometimes called something far less complimentary and far more scatological. Once one is aware of the aroma of Brett its presence is impossible to miss.

Sulphur compounds (sulphites) are used in wine making to stabilize the wine because they bind to oxygen molecules. This keeps the oxygen molecules from getting up to mischief, like feeding Brett. This practice, along with higher standards of cellar hygiene, has largely reduced the number of wines affected by Brett, with one categorical exception: producers of so-called natural or low intervention wines without sulphites.

Natural wines often depend on the tannins from grape skins or stems to do the work of stabilization. The incidence of Brett in these wines tends to be much higher than in others. Many fans of natural wines don’t seem to mind, or might even enjoy, some Brett in their wines. This has caused some controversy in the wine world, especially among older drinkers who consider it an unpleasant fault.

Perhaps one wino’s fault is another wino’s pleasure.

Except for TCA; nobody likes TCA. Apart from sending wine back in restaurants, many provincial liquor retailers, like the LCBO or SAQ, will accept returns of opened bottles of defective wine, although it seems the BC Liquor does not. One would hope that honourable private retailers would also accept the return of faulty wines. And one would hope even more that one’s exposure to faulty wines is rare.