Flic This! What Farmers and Food Artisans Can learn From Hollywood North

If only food were like the movies.

If anyone in the Ontario government should ever want to do something to encourage quality jobs in local food production, there’s no need to look any further than the government’s own Ontario Media Development Corporation and its Ontario Film and Television Tax Credit, which has just boosted the already generous incentives for hiring cultural workers who live in Ontario. Someone might want to tell the folks at the ministry of agriculture and food that their mantra about subsidies and incentives for innovative local food producers being verboten is just a myth put out on TV, and isn’t followed by anyone in that industry.

Contrary to widespread stereotypes about the ineffectiveness of governments, governments do indeed know how to make things happen. If they could ever get into the habit of being proactive about making good things happen — as they are doing with some cultural industries — Ontario’s promising food sector could be cooking with homegrown biogas.

Here’s how the buy-local talent incentive worked before the top-up announced at the end of June. Production companies got a tax credit worth up to 35 per cent of their wage bill and travel expenses for any Ontario workers they hired. First-time producers lured from outside the province (two people work in California to woo them) got 40 per cent covered, and anyone spreading the wealth outside the Greater Toronto Area got an extra 10 per cent bonus.

Believe it or not, financial incentives from government actually work to create local jobs, perhaps even better than expensive ad campaigns urging people to buy local — the approach taken by Foodland Ontario. In a tough year like 2008, Ontario hosted 223 film and TV projects that spent $671 million in the province. In 2006, before the recession, $881 million was spent on 238 projects. The drop-off in 2008 likely led the government to top up the incentive benefits by providing a new 25 per cent tax credit on equipment and studio rentals. These incentives were also made permanent by the last Ontario budget, so investors won’t lose any sleep worrying about whether they’ll be jerked around from year to year, as is the case with any goodies doled out to food producers.

It appears that senior Ontario government officials are aware of and supportive of these incentives, which are said to be verboten by various free trade deals from happening elsewhere in the economy where some homegrown advantage might be welcomed. Indeed, a government media release quotes treasurer Dwight Duncan, who is pleased that the incentives continue Ontario’s “firm and ongoing commitment to ensure Ontario remains a top jurisdiction in North America for film and television production.” Culture minister Aileen Carroll adds that “this bold move” ensures film and movie production “remains a vital player in Ontario’s innovative economy.”

The incentives are government money well spent. They’ve helped build a cultural sector that creates 276,000 highly skilled jobs and 5.3 billion a year worth of economic activity, according to the government’s release. Those jobs pay for a lot of jobs that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and a lot of income taxes which more than compensate for money doled out in hire-local incentives.

I’m interested in the reasons why such programs aren’t followed in food and agriculture, with equal potential to be a creative hub as the centre of a local sustainable multicultural cuisine that relies on artisanal skills and good pay levels.

The likely explanation for ignoring food is that most industrial incentive programs date back to a century ago, when governments were desperate for ways to lure industry into the province and move beyond an economy of primary resources, which supposedly condemned us to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” According to Vivian Nelles’ brilliant study on The Politics of Development, a whole series of government incentives in the 1890 to 1914 period, including the creation of gigantic Ontario Hydro as a supplier of cheap electricity for manufacturers, transformed the province into a hothouse of industrial jobs. Market forces and advertising jingles to buy local had nothing to do with this incredible success story; incentives and infrastructure made it happen.

More recently, back in the 1980s when I worked for an Ontario government thinktank, Robert Reich’s book, The Next American Frontier, was all the rage among policy wonks and advisers to the provincial cabinet. Reich, a well-known American liberal, argued that dirty industries dependent on cheap labor and lax environmental laws would soon be deserting North America and heading for Asia. The only way to make up for this loss of low-end jobs was for governments to actively create opportunities for highly-skilled post-industrial jobs that could support the lifestyles and government revenues we’d become accustomed to, Reich argued.

The cultural, film and TV tax credit programs date to this decade and the heyday of interventionist government thinking, once a mainstay of Ontario conservatism. Since then, the entire political spectrum has shifted far rightwards, and proactive moves to stimulate certain economic sectors are now only cool if they deal with fiction, like TV and film.

But the food and ag sector remains the second biggest employer in Ontario, likely to become first after the collapse of the auto sector. Ontario food processing is second only to Chicago in the North American economy. Opportunities for highly creative and artisanal employment are everywhere – adapting recipes from other countries so home grown ingredients can be substituted, season extension growing methods so ingredients from other climates can be grown here, stoneground breads that retain all the nutrients of a wide variety of grains, fusion dishes that express Ontario’s reality as the new homeland for people from more different cultures than anywhere in the world, foods grown by farmers who went to the high end of sustainable production methods..and on and on.

Considerations of food security and environmental protection as well as job creation invite us to find ways to strengthen Ontario food production. If no strong moves are made, the already aging ag sector – most farmers are well into their 50s and unable to convince their kids to take over the family farm – will soon die of old age.

All it would take to create tens of thousands of such jobs would be a tax credit program for processors, restaurants and cafeterias that bought the products of local farmers, who could rise to the occasion just like cultural workers did. This kind of government support doesn’t have to be limited to the make-believe world of television and film.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, July 16, 2009)

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