I expect few Alberta citizens have heard of Bill 202 – the Alberta Local Food Act. It was introduced in the legislature in June 2015, has passed second reading, and could be formally passed and proclaimed this year.
On the surface the act seems admirable in its’ support of local food production, processing and distribution. It recommends that public sector purchasing of local food be increased. But upon closer scrutiny of the wording of the act, one becomes suspicious of the real intentions of the Bill. Politically correct buzzwords pop up, such as “sustainable farming practices”, “diversity in scale and marketing”, “local organic”, and “organic farming associations”. The act also suggests regulations like, “prescribe limitations on designation of local food”. That sounds like exclusionary and discriminatory intentions. Although not unusual, a specific Minister responsible for implementation is not mentioned. The obvious Minister and department would be Agriculture, but the wording of the Act makes no reference whatsoever to the Department of Agriculture.
Curiously much of what the Act purports regarding agricultural production and processing is already being carried out by the Department of Agriculture. But therein lies the underlying tone of this Bill – the political folks behind this legislation don’t perceive local food as coming from commercial agricultural production in this province. That’s the type of economic production that the Department is mandated to encourage and support. NDP MLA Deborah Drever speaking in support of the Bill in the legislature made the intent clear when she stated the Bill was to encourage non-industrial farming and spoke glowingly about community gardens as a source for local food. As you might suspect most of our local food is produced by regular agricultural production and is not politically correct as the perpetrators of this legislation imply.
Bill 202 requires the government to establish a 12-member “Advisory Committee on Food and Agriculture”. One ponders how the agriculture and food industry in Alberta became a multi-billion business employing hundreds of thousands all these years without such an advisory committee. It’s virtually guaranteed that the advisory committee will be populated with the usual NDP-friendly suspects – supposed agriculture experts from unions, green lobby groups, animal rights zealots, urban hobby farming, and of course the organic food business lobby. Representation from commercial agriculture will be kept to a minimum to forestall any unwelcome comments about the common-sense realities of agriculture in Alberta. The precedent would be the farm worker consultations where 75 per cent of the government appointees had no connection to agriculture.
The main purpose of the advisory committee is to develop an Alberta Local Food and Agriculture Strategy. Firstly, they are to make an assessment of local food production as it exists at present. All of that information could easily be provided by Department of Agriculture experts. But I expect that a government stacked committee of mostly city folks would be suspicious of the objectivity of a Department that is connected with the commercial agriculture sector. They would want and their own leftish consultant to do the work so that the assessment would reflect what the committee wants to hear to justify its ideological strategy.
It’s easy to imagine what this advisory committee will recommend in its agriculture strategy for Alberta – support for organic farming, Farmers Markets, and small farming operations. Public land in cities is to be made available at no cost for community gardens and of course grants to subsidize the promotion of politically correct local food production and community-based infrastructure projects and staff. The cost of this boondoggle – committee per diems, traveling and meeting expenses, staff costs, consultants, promotional campaigns, etc. will be hundreds of thousands per year at least. Subsidies to develop selected politically correct production programs could be in the millions.
One assumes with government cutbacks that funding might be a problem but I suspect politically correct and climate change projects are exempt. One devious government funding approach would be to sidetrack a few million from the $30 million the Department of Agriculture saved from cutbacks it made to development and research grants to commercial agriculture – that would be rather ironic and hypocritical. But then this Bill is designed to appeal to progressive voters in cities and not to the real-world agriculture industry.
A common-sense way to expand local food production is to mandate that food purchases by publicly funded/connected institutions must be local wherever possible. Then let that specific demand be supplied by anyone in Alberta without exclusion or subsidization. Local food should not be subject to an ideological test.
Will Verboven is an expert on Alberta’s farm industry and writes a regular column for The Stettler Independent and Castor Advance.