Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s (AAFC) decision last week to axe its long-running shelterbelt program, is not only a set-back for agroforestry in Canada, but could also have severe short and long-term implications for the sustainability of Prairie agriculture.
Agroforestry Development Centre
AAFC’s move to close the Agroforestry Development Centre in Indian Head, SK and terminate shelterbelt program by 2013 has obvious immediate implications for the program staff who were were handed pink slips. And after this year, the end of the shelterbelt seedling program means prairie agricultural producers will no longer have a source of free tree and shrubs as an incentive to plant shelterbelts. Shelterbelts that both protect their crops and generate other valuable ecological goods and services.
In light of recent patterns of drought and a warming climate, this program cut jeopardizes the foundations of sustainability of prairie agriculture. The shelterbelt centre opened in 1901, and over its history has produced and distributed over 650 million tree and shrub seedlings for conservation plantings. These plantings have saved countless hundreds of thousands of hectares of productive farmland from erosion. And it could be argued that it is a major reason that there is a significant agricultural sector on the prairies today.
The program contributes significantly to Canada being a net exporter of food, and is a direct result of this program and other conservation measures in response to the ecological crisis of the dust bowl era in the 1930s. Had this service not been in place, Canada’s ‘breadbasket’ could look more like the shifting sand dunes of North Africa. For there too in antiquity was also a highly productive, expansive grain producing region and foundation for the empire of Carthage. A region that is now diminished by barren desert.
Rationale for Closure is Weak
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s official explanation for the cuts are weak at best: “Farmers don’t farm like they did 100 years ago,’ Ritz said. “We want to make sure we’re focusing on the right programs for tomorrow’s agriculture.” This is short-term thinking at its worst. Conservation plantings help to buffer the full range of climatic extremes that can be experienced, not just the patterns of recent history. This rationale is tantamount to tearing the sprinkler system out of your house and selling the pipe for scrap metal because you haven’t had a house fire in the past few years. Tomorrow’s agriculture is founded in the same ecological reality as yesterday’s and today’s: no soil, no food.
It’s hard not to think that these cuts are politically motivated, rather than a necessary response to overall government austerity. Shutting down the shelterbelt program is AAFC’s response to a 10% budget reduction. Rather than tackling AAFC’s rather plump bureaucracy, senior management chose to eliminate front-line staff and services. According to the most recent Treasury Board estimates, the nearly 3 billion dollar AAFC budget supports well over 6000 employees. And nearly a third of this staffing is in what is termed “internal services”: management, human resources (HR) and other support roles (e.g. information technology – IT). This ratio of the amount of overhead to program delivery is not only ridiculously high by private sector standards, it even stretches the limits of acceptability through a government accounting lens.
Re-organizing AAFC and looking for operating efficiencies by reducing the number of managers is an option. AAFC should also be utilizing more efficient centralized IT and HR support may. It may have been the more difficult path to achieve a 10 percent reduction, but it would have freed the resources to retain a very worthwhile program.
Shelterbelts Create Public Benefits
Those with a strong laisez-faire political philosophy will argue that if shelterbelts deliver conservation and production benefits to land owners, the individual producers should invest in them without government support. This ignores the fact however, that significant public benefits accrue from conservation-driven agroforestry on private land. These come in the form of clean air, soil and water conservation, preservation of biodiversity and the food security that comes from a strong and stable agricultural sector. The technical support provided and the trees and shrubs distributed through the shelterbelt program were really only an incentive for the investment in on-farm conservation. Producers still made significant and ongoing investments of time and resources in planting and tending their shelterbelts. And they did so without compensation for the public ecological goods and services generated.
This is sadly another example of laying waste to program that has delivered tangible benefits for over a century instead of tackling the roots of government bloat. It may help achieve Canada’s short-term budgetary goals, but it could put the entire sector at increased risk as we move forward with uncertainties of climate change. The loss of the sheltbelt program is blow for agroforestry in Canada and undermines the foundations of sustainable agriculture.