Emerging details about reorganizations planned for federal agriculture research and food inspection have Canada's ag minister responding on the defensive.
"Farmers across Canada are divided on many issues in agriculture, but the one issue we all agree on being important is research," Stephen Vandervalk, president of the Grain Growers of Canada, said in a release Thursday criticizing planned cuts to federally-funded crops research.
"While we appreciate some of the (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) facilities were old and expensive to maintain, and had advised the government we would not oppose... closing some, we had firmly communicated to them that part of the savings should be used to maintain or strengthen the actual numbers of scientists doing research."
However, said Vandervalk, who farms near Fort Macleod, Alta., "it looks like the spring wheat program for the black and dark brown soils zones has been slashed by about one third at a time when the world needs more production."
The GGC specifically said AAFC plans to cut 41 research positions "in Winnipeg alone," at its Cereal Research Centre (CRC) with other jobs to be "re-distributed" to AAFC research facilities at Brandon and Morden, Man.
"Other research cuts are dispersed more thinly across Canada with more details to come," the GGC said Thursday.
Cuts so far are "a clear indication" AAFC is being moved away from research through to varietal development, GGC executive director Richard Phillips said in the same release.
The GGC, he said, has had "some assurances" that core agronomic work in areas such as the infamous wheat stem rust Ug99, now seen in Africa and the Middle East, will continue.
However, he said, "one has to speculate on how much more could have been accomplished with those extra bodies refocused, rather than released."
"Agriculture is a competitive modern industry, and changes will modernize Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, allowing it to concentrate on innovation, marketing and reducing barriers for business," federal Ag Minister Gerry Ritz said in a separate statement Wednesday responding to fresh reports of various ag budget moves.
"Our government was elected on a promise to balance the budget. The agriculture portfolio will realize 10 per cent in cost savings. Our savings are fair, balanced and moderate and will be implement(ed) over a number of years."
Specifically, the budget Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced March 29 will see the federal agriculture portfolio's overall annual budget reduced from current levels by $309.7 million by 2014-15.
The budget aims to cut AAFC funding by $17.1 million from current levels in 2012-13, and by $168.5 million from current levels in 2013-14.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), part of the AAFC portfolio, will see its budget cut from current levels by $56.1 million by 2015, starting with cuts of $2.1 million in 2012-13 and $10 million in 2013-14.
Federal NDP ag critic Malcolm Allen said the planned CFIA cuts will bring its number of food inspectors to "pre-2008" levels, adding that "fewer inspectors create more risk for Canadians."
"These cuts put Canadians' lives at risk. We could have another listeriosis crisis on our hands. People could get sick, or worse, they could lose their lives," Allen said in a release Wednesday, referring to a 2008 listeriosis outbreak originating at a Toronto deli meats plant, sickening 57 people in seven provinces from B.C. to New Brunswick, including 41 people in Ontario.
Among those 57 cases, the listeria strain in question was ruled to be the underlying or contributing cause in the deaths of 22 people.
Ritz retorted Wednesday that CFIA "will not make any changes that would in any way place the health and safety of Canadians at risk" and Flaherty's budget "includes an additional $51 million over two years to enhance food safety, building upon the $100 million in last year's budget."
Since 2006, Ritz said, the government "has provided the investments for the CFIA to hire 733 net new inspection staff."
In its own release Tuesday, CFIA laid out plans for a shift in some of its inspection work, noting its inspectors "will continue to perform risk-based label verification activities," such as whether a product labelled "zero grams of trans fat per serving" meets its label claim, or whether a food product has any undeclared allergens.
Referring to some of its other responsibilities, however, CFIA added it now also plans to set up an "online self-assessment labelling tool" to help producers, manufacturers and retailers create "compliant labels."
"The intent of this tool is to create greater industry awareness, understanding and compliance with labelling requirements for a broad range of information such as net quantity, date markings, nutrition labelling, bilingual labelling, and legibility and location."
The new label assessment tool, expected to be launched in 2014-15, is meant to reduce the amount of time CFIA staff spend working directly with industry to explain and clarify labelling rules, the agency said.
CFIA said Tuesday it also plans to lift regulations that restrict sizes of containers for food. Such rules, it said, are "outdated and limit industry innovation and consumer choices."
Food container size rules "are not related to health and safety," the agency said, and dropping such duties will allow it "to place a greater focus on higher priority activities including health and safety aspects of the food production and regulatory systems."
Among other news from agencies affected by Flaherty's budget, the Canadian Co-operative Association reported Friday that the Co-operative Development Initiative (CDI), a program that's backed new and emerging co-operatives since 2003, "will not be continued."
Furthermore, the association said, AAFC's Rural and Co-operatives Secretariat, which administers programs related to co-operatives, will be "significantly reduced in size."
"We view this as a lack of recognition of the importance of co-operatives in job creation and economic growth in this country," Brigitte Gagne, executive director of the Conseil canadien de la cooperation et de la mutualite, said in the association's release. "We don't understand this decision, in light of the program's success."
Furthermore, Ritz reiterated Wednesday that the budget calls for AAFC to consolidate its grants and contributions programs. "By delivering our programs out of one branch, our department will offer more efficient services by fewer people," he said.
"Farmers and the industry will benefit from this change, which will simplify the application process and reduce paperwork and other redundancies, while reducing costs."
Flaherty's budget also proposes transition funding of $27 million in 2012-13 and $17 million in 2013-14 for the Canadian Grain Commission, to see the commission move to "a sustainable funding model" and update its fee structure for its services.
Budget pushes CGC changes, April 7, 2012
Agriculture department grazed in federal cost-cutting, March 30, 2012
More money for ag research, Gates urges, Feb. 10, 2012
Food inspection budget cuts for CFIA jeered, Jan. 19, 2012