BC United, NDP present clashing visions for solving housing crisis

Differing views on housing

Is the solution to the middle-class housing squeeze new government-built rental apartments, or a rent-to-own program that partners with the private sector? Those two different approaches by the governing NDP and Opposition BC United this week begin to paint a clearer picture of the contrast in housing policy facing voters in this fall’s provincial election.

BC United Leader Kevin Falcon unveiled the first plank in his housing platform Thursday, which would require private developers to set aside up to 15 per cent of future housing projects for a new rent-to-own program, backstopped by the provincial government.

British Columbians would enter into a purchase contract for a condo or home, pay rent at the market rate for three years, and then have that rent converted into a down payment to take ownership of their unit. On a $600,000 condo, at $2,000 monthly rent, it would allow a person to save a $72,000 down payment in three years.

Falcon said it would help address the difficulty British Columbians have in saving for a down payment while also paying some of the most expensive rental rates in Canada.

“The beauty of it is it provides ease of access for those first-time buyers to get what is most challenging for them, which is that down payment,” said Falcon.

“Rather than us trying to come up with some big multibillion-dollar program, like the NDP are trying to do where they’re going to become developers and try and build things and make them affordable, which they will never do, what I’m saying is let's do it immediately by working with homes already being built.

“Provide that financing backstop for these units that are participating, and that will make developers whole, and then they will eagerly participate.”

That’s the opposite of the approach unveiled by Premier David Eby on Monday, when he unveiled a $2-billion government development program, and launched a broadside attack on the private development sector for failing to build enough affordable housing.

“We know that the private sector alone has not been able to deliver the middle-income housing that we need,” said Eby, blaming it for wild speculation and price increases.

That core debate — the extent to which government itself should be a development agency, builder and housing policy lawmaker all in one — would appear to be the dividing line between the two parties.

Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon called Falcon’s plan “underwhelming.”

“I was hoping for something substantial that we could have a debate on, but there’s nothing here,” he said Thursday.

Kahlon said the rent-to-own plan is already part of BC Builds. That’s not true, and the New Democrats know it. There was no mention of rent-to-own in the program’s lengthy technical briefing or press conference this week. Either United beat the NDP to the punch on the idea, or the NDP intends to steal it in the future.

Falcon’s housing plan also included a pledge to eliminate the property transfer tax on homes under $1 million, saving around $18,000 on fees to the government, as well as new provincial sales tax rebates for homebuilders.

The two parties overlap on the issue of public land, with United proposing 99-year leases for developers to build affordable rental housing on government land, while the idea is already the cornerstone feature of the NDP’s BC Builds program.

Neither party, so far, has offered a lot of details on how their plans will actually work in the real world. The onus is on the NDP to do more in this area, because it has highly paid staff (like former Victoria mayor Lisa Helps) working full-time on developing BC Builds, backstopped by the gigantic BC Housing Crown corporation, the housing ministry and the premier’s office.

The Opposition tends to be held to lower standards, because it doesn’t have access to ministry data, government staff or resources. But Falcon will nonetheless have to put some more meat on the bones of his rent-to-own policy if he expects voters to take it seriously this fall. He couldn’t even ballpark the cost to taxpayers at Thursday’s press conference.

United will also have to clarify which NDP housing policies it intends to keep, should it form government, after voting against bills to allow quad-plexes on single family lots and override municipalities that fail to meet their housing targets.

Still, there’s a compelling split occurring between the two parties on the housing file: Government knows best, versus get out of the way for the private sector.

That gives voters a clearer picture of where each leader stands on one of the biggest challenges facing people today. Ultimately, that’s good for British Columbians. The more ideas in an election, the better.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Federal supply management bill is bad news for Canadians

Supply management fails

“Bill C-282 epitomizes misguided protectionism, driven by vested interests and a lack of understanding of rural dynamics, risking harm to both consumers and diverse economic sectors. Its passage threatens to stifle competition and impede growth in Canada’s agricultural and non-agricultural industries.”

Bill C-282 currently sits in the Canadian Senate and stands on the precipice of becoming law in a matter of weeks. Essentially, the bill seeks to bestow immunity upon supply management from any potential future trade negotiations, without offering increased market access to potential trade partners. In simpler terms, it risks holding all other economic sectors hostage solely to safeguard the interests of a small, privileged group of farmers.

That is far from an optimal scenario, and the implications of this bill spell bad news for Canadians.

Supply management, which governs poultry, egg, and dairy production in Canada, has traditionally enabled us to fulfill our domestic needs. Under this system, farmers are allocated government-sanctioned quotas to produce food for the nation, while high tariffs are imposed on imports of items such as chicken, butter, yogurt, cheese, milk, and eggs.

This model has been in place for more than five decades, ostensibly to shield family farms from economic volatility. However, despite the implementation of supply management, Canada has witnessed a decline in the number of farms compared to the United States, where a national supply management scheme does not exist.

Supply management has failed to preserve much of anything beyond enriching select agricultural sectors.

For instance, dairy farmers now possess quotas valued at over $25 billion, while concurrently burdening dairy processors with the highest-priced industrial milk in the Western world. Recent data indicates a significant surge in prices at the grocery store, with yogurt prices alone soaring by over 30% since December 2023.

This escalation is increasingly straining the budgets of many consumers.

It’s evident to those knowledgeable about the situation that the emergence of Bill C-282 should come as no surprise. Proponents of supply management exert considerable influence over politicians across party lines, compelling them to support this bill to safeguard the interests of less than 1% of our economy, much to the ignorance of most Canadians.

In the last federal budget, the dairy industry alone received over $300 million in research funds, funds that arguably exceed their actual needs. While Canada’s agricultural sector accounts for approximately 7% of our GDP, supply-managed industries represent only a small fraction of that figure. Supply-managed farms represent about 5% of all farms in Canada.

Forging trade agreements with key partners such as India, China, and the United Kingdom is imperative not only for sectors like automotive, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology, but for the vast majority of farms in livestock, and grains to thrive and contribute to global welfare and prosperity. It is essential to recognize that Canada has much more to offer than merely self-sufficiency in food production.

Over time, the marketing boards overseeing quotas for farmers have amassed significant power and have proven themselves politically aggressive. They vehemently oppose any challenges to the existing system, targeting politicians, academics, and groups advocating for reform or abolition.

Despite occasional resistance from MPs and Senators, no major political party has dared to question the disproportionate protection afforded to one sector over others. Strengthening our supply-managed sectors necessitates embracing competition, which can only serve to enhance their resilience and competitiveness.

A recent example of the consequences of protectionism is the United Kingdom’s decision to walk away from trade negotiations with Canada due to disagreements over access to our dairy market. Not only do many Canadians appreciate the quality of British cheese, but increased competition in the dairy section would also help drive prices down, a welcome relief given current economic challenges.

In the past decade, Canada has ratified trade agreements such as CUSMA, CETA, and CPTPP, all of which entailed breaches in our supply management regime. Despite initial concerns from farmers, particularly regarding the impact on poultry, eggs, and dairy, these sectors have fared well.

A dairy farm in Ontario recently sold for a staggering $21.5 million in Oxford County. Claims of losses resulting from increased market access are often unfounded, as farmer boards simply adjust quotas when producers exit the industry.

In essence, Bill C-282 represents a misguided initiative driven by farmer boards capitalizing on the ignorance of urban residents and politicians regarding rural realities. Embracing further protectionism will not only harm consumers yearning for more competition at the grocery store, but also impede the growth opportunities of various agricultural sectors striving to compete globally, and stifle the expansion prospects of non-agricultural sectors seeking increased market access.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Grocer blackouts hurt consumers

Grocery price freezes

“In the shadow of price freezes, consumers are left in the dark as food prices surge unpredictably, forcing compromises in their choices. The blackout must end to shed light on fair practices that truly benefit the public.”

Consumers often assume price freezes are always in their favour. However, it’s important to recognize that not all price freezes are equal, especially when it comes to products further up the supply chain.

Every year, between Nov. 1 and Feb. 1, grocers request suppliers not to increase prices for undisclosed reasons.

This unspoken agreement between grocers and suppliers, which likely started decades ago, may not ultimately benefit consumers.

In October, as suppliers renegotiate contracts with grocers, prices are often adjusted and many increase, just before the three-month price freeze. Now that the “blackout” period has ended, we should anticipate food prices rising again, as even (grocery store chain) Metro CEO Eric Lafleche warned consumers during his recent earnings call.

Price hikes are likely to affect non-perishable products, primarily those in the centre of the store.

While high food inflation is certainly a concern for consumers, price volatility can be even more detrimental, and that’s exactly what these blackout periods bring to the market.

Sudden spikes in food prices can surprise consumers and force them to temporarily abandon certain food categories, often including healthier options, leading to nutritional compromises. Once consumers perceive a food category as financially out of reach, it takes them a while to return.

Given Innovation and Technology Minister François-Philippe Champagne’s efforts to stabilize food prices in Canada, he should be aware of these blackout periods and should target them as market-distorting mechanisms that ultimately harm consumers.

If we examine the past 15 years, according to Statistics Canada, some of the highest month-to-month food price increases occurred either in November or February. The highest month-to-month food price increase in the last 15 years was in November 2008 at 2.5%, followed by February 2011 at 2.2%.

Statistics Canada also recorded above-average month-to-month food price increases in November 2016 (1.6%) and November 2022 (1.7%).

Despite the seasonality factor, blackout periods don’t shield budget-strapped consumers, as evidenced by increases in January 2016, January 2022, January 2020, and December 2018.

Coincidentally, these three months—January, February, and November—have experienced the highest month-to-month food price increases in the last 30 years, except for May. But we’ll get to that later.

The excuse often cited is that grocers don’t have time to deal with price changes during the busy holiday season.

However, this argument may have been valid years ago when grocers manually updated prices on every item. Today, many prices are digital and displayed electronically, raising questions about the need for such blackout periods.

More fundamentally, since these blackout periods are industry-wide, one could argue that this practice could be considered anti-competitive and may lead to price coordination among competitors.

Although we still don’t know the precise reasons behind past price-fixing scandals, blackout periods may indicate a broader culture of price-fixing in the industry, to the detriment of consumers.

This issue goes beyond blackout periods. Recently, Loblaw informed its suppliers their fees will increase once again.

In the agri-food sector, suppliers must pay grocers to do business with them. Distribution centre charges will rise from 1.17% to 1.22%, and direct-to-store delivery (DSD) charges will increase from 0.36% to 0.38%.

While these may seem like minor changes to most of us, they can amount to millions of dollars for suppliers.

These yearly unilateral increases, imposed by Loblaw, will take effect on April 28 without any dialogue or negotiation. While major multinationals like PepsiCo, Mondelez, Lactalis, Kraft-Heinz, and Kellogg may adjust their prices to offset higher fees from grocers, many smaller Canadian food manufacturers may struggle financially and even exit the industry.

This results in higher prices and reduced competition, which is counterproductive for consumers. Again, coincidentally, May, the one month we should be expecting price hikes from up-the-food conflicts has the second-highest month-to-month average increase in the last 30 years.

To address these issues, we need more discipline and oversight, including the implementation of a mandatory code of conduct to ensure fair practices in the industry. It’s time to put an end to this insanity.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Banning glyphosate, found in Roundup, is akin to banning red meat

Is Roundup carcinogenic?

Bayer AG’s Monsanto has been ordered to pay a staggering $2.2 billion to a former Roundup user who linked his cancer to the herbicide.

This significant sum highlights the largest verdict in the ongoing five-year litigation involving the weedkiller. However, the legal battles are far from over, as there are still over 50,000 cases pending in the United States. It’s important to note that out of more than 165,000 cases initially filed, over 110,000 were either dismissed or deemed unjustified by the courts.

Glyphosate, the primary component of Roundup, patented by Monsanto in 1971 and introduced to the market in 1974, is a widely used herbicide with broad-spectrum capabilities. Its extensive use by farmers worldwide has led to its widespread presence in the environment, including Canada’s. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a potential human carcinogen, placing it in Group 2A, the same category as red meat and very hot beverages above 65 °C. This categorization ignited ongoing debates regarding glyphosate’s carcinogenic effects.

Recent studies, including a comprehensive one published in Environmental Research, have shed new light on glyphosate’s environmental presence and its potential impact on human health. Consequently, the question of whether glyphosate is carcinogenic remains a subject of ongoing discussion. While numerous studies suggest strong associations between glyphosate and human diseases and environmental harm, other meta-analyses have suggested that the risks are minimal.

Glyphosate has arguably been one of the most extensively studied chemicals globally, resulting in a plethora of research that is primarily negative. Monsanto faced accusations of manipulating its research and results to influence governments and public opinion. The common thread among these studies is the call for more research to better understand the risks.

Nearly 50 years after Roundup’s introduction, over 30 countries have banned glyphosate use. Various interest groups have effectively demonized glyphosate over the years, creating doubts about its safety. Health Canada, however, claims that glyphosate is safe after years of scientific evaluation, although many still advocate for its ban.

The latest review in Environmental Health suggests that epidemiological studies offer limited evidence to definitively establish glyphosate as a carcinogen. These findings align with IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen in Group 2A. Banning glyphosate would be akin to banning red meat or hot beverages above 65°C, which may seem overly dramatic.

The ongoing debate and fear surrounding glyphosate can be attributed to the biotech industry’s inadequate risk communication strategy over the years. Since 1974, the industry has primarily focused on selling to farmers and increasing agricultural yields. Genetic engineering, reliant on herbicides like Roundup, has undoubtedly improved agricultural efficiency. However, it has also exacerbated the rural-urban divide, leaving many city dwellers with a lack of understanding about genetic engineering. Interest groups opposing industrial agriculture have capitalized on this information gap.

Ultimately, Bayer AG, Monsanto, and other biotechnology companies have only themselves to blame for taking consumers for granted. Consumers have been served food without adequate transparency about what was happening in our farmers’ fields. Advocates calling for GMO labelling are justified, as it would increase transparency in the agri-food sector and empower consumers to make informed choices.

With gene editing permitted in Canada since last year, the industry mustn’t repeat the same mistakes. Ignoring consumers’ concerns could have financial consequences. It’s essential to value consumers and address their questions and apprehensions to build trust in the industry and its products.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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