As we drove through the blueberry fields and cranberry bogs in southern B.C., I thought of economic generators. What, I wondered, was a bigger sustainable economic generator to our nation: oil or agriculture?
An environmental scan of an industry must include the long-term effects on people and the planet. The structures that we employ for our short-term gain cannot be straw houses that rot and decay without adding to the longevity of our people. As every civilization is born from agriculture or some form of harvesting food, it is best to look at the analogy from the ground up.
Agriculture in Canada directly employs more than 305,000 people and the entire ag industry employs 2.2 million persons — supplying one in eight Canadians with work. Oil and gas employs 190,000 people directly and just under 400,000 persons as an industry. And while the oil and gas sector is currently laying off workers, the agricultural industry is estimated to be short 74,000 workers by the year 2022.
Canada is the fifth-largest exporter of agricultural products in the world and holds the No. 1 spot for peas, lentils, wild blueberries, maple syrup, canola, mustard seed, malting barley and flax. It produces four per cent of global petroleum and has six per cent of world exports.
Oil and gas produce 2.9 per cent of GDP while all of energy, including electricity, is 7.5 per cent of GDP. Agriculture and agri-food accounts for 6.7 per cent of GDP — bigger than auto manufacturing, the once sacred cow in Canada. Canada owns 3.5 per cent of the total value of agri-food and agricultural exports in the world.
The fundamental differences in the two industries are in environment and ownership.
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The Canadian grocery cart contains 70 per cent of Canadian product grown in Canada and produced from family farms. A full 98 per cent of farms in Canada are family farms supporting the continuation of the rural infrastructure and the protection of rural cultures. More than 25,000 of these farms are owned and operated by men and women under age 35. Agriculture attracts youth and rural investment.
This is of fundamental importance as it is the strength of a Canadian electorate to have a sound secured and emerging middle class, often found in rural communities. Forty per cent of agricultural commodities are value added to in Canada in more than 6,000 facilities, and the industry has room for growth (meat processing alone employs 79,000 persons). A small percentage of oil has further value add within our borders in 15 refineries. The cost to our economy of exporting rather than processing on bitumen alone is estimated at $19 billion.
In the oil and gas sector, 12 per cent of product is imported. Imports into Canada come from the U.S., Algeria, Iraq, and Norway. Algeria and Iraq both have ongoing human rights issues and these imports have often been referred to as ‘blood oil.’ Foreign investment in the sector is 36 per cent and key players are from China, Malaysia, UAE, U.K., Qatar and the U.S., with China being the big gun in Canadian oil and gas. Food imported into Canada comes from all corners of the globe and has a value of $24 billion. Canadians spend about eight per cent of their net income on food and eight per cent on fuel.
From an environmental perspective, there is no question agriculture leads in the reduction of greenhouse gases and in land preservation. As an example, biodiesel, a product of agriculture, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 99 per cent over conventional gasoline. In 2013, 26 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions came directly from the oil and gas sector, followed by transportation, buildings, and electricity and emission-intensive industries. Agriculture was estimated to contribute 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas.
Changes in farming practices continue to contribute to the reduction of environmental degradation. Minimum tillage saves more than 170 million litres of fuel annually and the dairy industry has reduced emissions by 21 per cent. The proper placement of fertilizer and the use of liquid fertilizer direct to the seed have had huge impacts in conventional crops. Since 1987 soil erosion has been reduced by 65 per cent in corn, 49 per cent in soybeans and 50 per cent in wheat.
The argument by those outside of agriculture is that it takes fossil fuel to farm. That is a fair statement but statistically agriculture uses three per cent of these fuels compared to transportation (30 per cent) industrial (38 per cent) residential (17 per cent) and commercial (13 per cent). Not only is agriculture a massive economic generator for Canada, it also does so with one of the smallest environmental footprints.
As for tax, the oil and gas industry pays approximately $23 billion in tax each year which is matched by consumers (including farmers) who paid $21.5 billion in tax in 2013. To say that the sector is a huge contributor as a stand-alone is not correct as it is Canadians who match the tax at the pump.
Canada is viewed as having an abundant supply of the safest food in the world. It does this with a smaller environmental footprint and while conserving land; building rural communities and families; adding value to commodities; employing one in eight persons; and preserving water. The oil and gas sector does not trump agriculture and food on any front — including GDP.
We can build sustainable food systems in the breadbasket of the world when governments understand, appreciate, and support agriculture. Agriculture is where it is at in terms of being an economic generator today and the food basket of tomorrow.
I vote for a strong economy and the future of Canada. I vote for agriculture.