I was honoured this summer when Premier Kathleen Wynne named me parliamentary assistant (PA) to the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs. After all, the premier had personally served as the minister of agriculture and food right up to the recent election.
Many have asked, however, why would a downtown MPP from Beaches-East York be named to a mostly rural portfolio?
Upon reflection I realized that it was a stroke of genius! After all, I am very knowledgeable in a small, but very important segment of the agri-food value chain: I’m a consumer. And so are you.
Yet, never in Ontario’s history have we been so disconnected from what we eat. Few of us have living relatives who work on the land that produces our fruits, vegetables and protein. And we rarely consider how that delicious cut of meat, crusty bread or creamy brie ends up on our plate.
In most cases, we are so far down the supply chain that this disconnect is to be expected. However, despite the distance between our homes and where our food is produced, there are multiple opportunities to bridge the divide.
As PA, I have met with organizations that are working hard to do just that. They teach the basics of agri-food and nutrition to our students; they provide opportunities for a new generation of farmers – young Canadians and newcomers – to find their footing and get access to land; and they protect farmland near our cities and farming right in our community.
Don’t let anyone tell you that Ontario’s agri-food sector is waning. In fact, agri-food contributes more than $34 billion to our province’s economy, and 760,000 jobs. With an ever-growing global population, the sector will continue to be a significant contributor to our economy.
In fact, to underscore its importance and potential, Premier Wynne has issued a challenge to create 120,000 additional jobs in Ontario’s agri-food sector by 2020. As your kids and grandkids ponder their career paths, they may want to consider a job in plant genetics, food science engineering, starting up a niche food retailer, or just farming.
Our agri-food sector may be thriving, but it isn’t without its struggles. Intense global competition, climate change, and rising land prices across the province are some of the challenges facing our food producers and processors. But they are up to the challenge, and our government is there to support them.
This is where my role comes in as PA. In my recently-published mandate letter, the minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs, Jeff Leal, has tasked me with promoting innovative local food projects across the province. I’m particularly excited about encouraging the growth of Ontario’s artisanal cheese industry, which I believe has the potential of following the successful path of the craft beer industry.
I will also be working with Minister Leal and other ministers to deliver effective programs and services to rural Ontarians. As our government invests in bringing our economy fully into the 21st century, rural Ontario mustn’t be left behind.
Over the next few years, I look forward to taking part in this important dialogue on rural Ontario’s growth and to ensuring that our agri-food sector thrives and meets the Premier’s challenge.
You can also do your part: buy products made and grown in Ontario, visit one of our agri-tourism hotspots like Prince Edward County, and perhaps consider a career in our thriving agri-food sector!