Substitution - Labour

Promote low input farming for its labour enhancement possibilities

Reduce the number of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW)

Shift input sector employment

Subsidize wages in targeted situations

Change perceptions of food system work

Use Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in a Human Resources framework

Create a network of vocational food system training centres

Integrate career clusters and pathways into employment advisory services

Fund a food works programme

Establish a national system of food system sectoral councils

Promote low input farming for its labour enhancement possibilities (adapted from MacRae et al., 2014b).

Does low input farming increase opportunities for labour?  This is not a well studied topic, though there are some data for organic farming. A US West Coast county level comparative analysis found consistently higher labour across organic compared to conventional operations (Finley et al. 2018).  Average increases in jobs/ha relative to conventional production have been in the 10 to 64% range, with wide variability among cropping systems (Soil Association, 2006).  Field crop and mixed operations reported slightly higher labour requirements for organic production, and for organic horticulture, substantially higher. In dairy production, however, requirements have been comparable. Further processing and direct marketing may also be significant contributors to increased labour requirements. Labour requirements have generally been higher in Europe and in more intensive production systems (Jansen 2000; Green and Maynard 2006). More extensive systems, however, often have not required additional labour (Wynen 2003). The 2011 Canadian Census of Agriculture found that although organic farmers represented 1.8% of farms, they accounted for 3.75% of farm workers, suggesting again higher labour requirements per farm.

These increased labour requirements are sometimes absorbed within the farm family but may result in additional hiring (Lobley et al., 2005; Green and Maynard, 2006). Interestingly, while labour productivity, measured against yields, has generally been lower on organic farms than conventional ones, returns to total labour may be higher, and wages may also be higher. There is also evidence that the quality of labour is more positive in organic farming because the work is more diversified and less repetitive (Jansen 2000), with the exception being large field crop operations that require long hours in the tractor regardless of the production system (Arnason, 2015). On the negative side, there is some evidence from the UK that a significant percentage of such additional labour demands are part-time and insecure (Lobley et al., 2005). Organic farmers have also been criticized in Canada for reliance on temporary farm workers and replicating some of the poor labour conditions of conventional farms, criticisms that the organic sector is slowly but unevenly addressing (cf. Klassen et al., 2022). A few studies have examined labour impacts of significant conversion in a region, finding increased employment in the 10 to 100% range depending on region, commodities involved, and scope of the food chain examined (Janzen, 2000). On balance, it would appear that organic production increases labour requirements and may improve labour quality.

Reduce the number of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW)

The CAHRC called for greater access to the TFW program. As part of that, the plan proposed making it easier for TFWs to apply for citizenship and the Federal Government responded with program such as Canadian Experience Class and the Atlantic Immigration Pilot.  In contrast, the analysis offered here suggests that the TFWP is an obstacle to  the achievement  of joined up food policy goals, so these programs must progressively be reduced. The TFWP represents a policy failure, in the sense that policy makers have not taken account of the deeper structural reasons for labour shortages, in this case, the nature of the work and the working conditions.  The real need is to increase the attractiveness of food system employment, especially farm labour, for both long time and recent residents.  These shortages do not occur because there are no local people to fill positions (Froy and Giguere, 2010).  Regarding Goal 10, the kind of labour mobility embedded in the TFWP is part of a neoliberal trade agenda.  Ultimately, is it realistic to support another country’s agricultural development by removing their workers and making their economy dependent on remittances?

New TFW rules for non-agricultural workers are supposed to help the transition to a system that optimizes use of domestic workers. A number of measures have been introduced, including regulations to equalize wages with Canadians, improve labour market information, restrict access to TFWs for some types of firms, and increase compliance[1]. There is currently a cap of 30% temporary foreign workers per firm workforce that came into effect in June of 2015.  The cap was reduced, to 20% by June 1, 2015 and to 10% in 2016.  However, the new federal government announced in early 2017 that it was revoking the rule. The previous government was also refusing applicants to the TFWP in regions of high unemployment for low skilled work in hospitality, food service and retail.

Although industry claims to be looking first for Canadians and to be committed to training, only turning to the TFWP as a last resort, much of the current discussion of solutions to labour shortages is about moving temporary workers quickly to Canadian status (Glen, 2015a). The 2019 Federal Budget Plan announced a 3-year pilot program targeted to meat processors for non-season workers, with a pathway to permanent residency (see Prime Minister's Office). While this may be appropriate once domestic labour market failures are addressed, it should not be the first response.  What appears to be missing is a requirement that non-agricultural firms have a comprehensive HR plan that demonstrates how they will reduce reliance on TFWs. Many of the measures proposed here will also increase the likelihood of labour force success at the firm level.  Caps and wage equalization, rather than being eliminated, should also be extended to the farm level, with different targets and timelines to be determined by more detailed research.

Shift input sector employment

In concert with the transition to low input food production, the input sector needs to shift its business strategies and this has labour implications.  Governments will have to intervene in specific ways to accelerate the shift, since there is little incentive for input firms to do so based on market forces.

Knowledge and management services must be the priority, rather than products. The agricultural sector has a long history of viewing solutions more in marketable products than knowledge and management (MacRae et al., 1989), but the shift to agrecological approaches alters that dynamic. There are still products to be sold, though many of them differ from those used in conventional production[2]. However, services are not necessarily connected to product sales as frequently is the case currently. In fact, in an agroecological context, many services are designed to help producers reduce input purchase. For example, nutrient management advisors will help farmers reduce their fertilizer use, even sometimes taking payment out of the savings generated from a lower fertilizer bill. Nutrient management regulations in many provinces have helped such services be financially viable. The shift from sales person to advisor requires different training (see Efficiency sustainable education), and would reduce those employed in sales, losses offset partly by increases in advisors.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) scouting services are another example of an important way to reduce pesticide reliance and use, but they are widely underutilized because of limited IPM training, mentorship and financial viability. Many existing services are tied to pesticide sales, so do not typically reduce farmer reliance on pesticides or facilitate a shift to agroecological approaches. Existing scouting firms struggle because farmers are reluctant to pay scouting fees and winter work is limited, unless the firm has applied research or training capacity. Government pesticide policy is a key contributor to this dilemma as pesticide reduction efforts are entirely voluntary. Legislation and regulations are primarily about product registration and labeling (the Pest Control Products Act).  Existing programs run by the Pest Management Centre of AAFC and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency provide information, analysis, and strategic support to commodities on pesticide reduction, but given the need, these are only modest encouragements[3]. Most provincial departments of agriculture have reduced the number of people providing direct IPM advice to producers. Several provinces and the federal government had cost-share programmes to help farmers develop IPM plans for their farms, but now, this is infrequently an explicit focus (See Goal 5).

In earlier periods, some sectors, on a voluntary basis, had some success using government programmes to advance IPM (e.g., apples, greenhouse production). But the voluntary nature of the program tended to attract only those sectors with some existing expertise and history of IPM adoption. Those crops making the largest contribution to pesticide toxicity on the landscape did not participate to the same degree. Consequently, those programmes must be made mandatory, with producers obliged to follow IPM protocols that can be verified by independent inspectors. As part of this, the program that supports IPM consultants should be brought back and made a provincial priority[4].  This would provide revenue during winter for IPM scouting services.

In a similar vein, supports to reduce off-farm inputs should be developed in other areas, with comparable types of government programme drivers in place to facilitate transition.

Subsidize wages in targeted situations

In some circumstances, wage subsidies may be required to encourage training, the establishment of certain types of positions, or the hiring of some categories of workers. Ontario’s Apprenticeship Tax Credit is one kind of wage subsidy for qualified apprentices, but subsidies come in many shapes and sizes, some general, some targeted, some positive, some negative. There is evidence from Europe that they are effective for hard-to-place workers (longer term unemployed, particularly youth and older workers), for a fixed period of time, and when the subsidy is targeted and paid to the employer. However, the subsidy needs to be linked to training so that job skills improve and the subsidy can later be withdrawn as the employee’s value increases. To receive the subsidy, a guarantee of post-subsidy employment must be in place. A program of this type existed in Germany from 1998-2003, with the wage subsidy up to 50% and for 12 months (Jaenichen and Stephan, 2007).

Wage subsidies are not without criticism. One argument against them is that some recruits would be employed without the subsidy, another, that programmes just encourage substitution of one worker for another. The subsidy employed might be at the expense of similar jobs in other firms (Jaenichen and Stephan, 2007). In this analysis, however, the subsidies would need to be designed to change who the job seekers are and who the employers are willing to train and hire.

Regarding net costs to government, if a person remains on social assistance rather than holding a job at 50% wage subsidy, then this is not likely more than the state would provide on social assistance.  So the proposal is to have a targeted wage subsidy programme administered by provincial governments (cost-share funded with the federal government) for certain sectors of the food system where low to medium skills are required, there is a pool of hard to place workers, and there are difficulties finding suitable candidates.

Another wage subsidy target is essential professions that are under-represented in rural areas.  One  Saskatchewan program targets summer veterinary students in rural vet clinics with the hope that they will accept employment  upon graduation in a rural clinic that performs alot of large animal care work  Large animal vets are in short supply.  In this program, the wage subsidy is shared between the Saskatchewan Cattleman's Association  (using check off fees), and the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association (Briere, 2021).  This model, with multiple funding partners, could be scaled up and out across numerous other professions in short supply in rural Canada.

Change perceptions of food system work

Industry often complains about the perception of the agrifood sector. Because of the nature of the work and the often reduced remuneration relative to other areas, the sector is viewed somewhat disdainfully by the general public and by many young people seeking careers. The blame rests partly on decision makers and firms that do not properly portray how central food is to human survival and culture, and do not organize their efforts to reflect that importance. If food is just a business opportunity, then it is competing with all the other economic sectors. In this sense, the decision by many farm groups to portray farming as a business was a mistake. It came out of a desire to “professionalize” farming, but in so doing stripped away many of its most important features. The industrialization of food production, the homogenization of products and tastes, and “distancing” (Kneen, 1995) have all contributed to this loss of reputation. If food is central to health and sustainability of people and planet, then it has a different appeal, especially to many young people who want to participate in something that is important to society.  Although there are some programmes to support public awareness of conventional agriculture[5], and the recent CAHRC strategy (December 2022) recognizes the need to do more, most do not recognize food as an essential system.

In a joined up approach, all the messaging and practice shifts.  Existing funding programs would have to be modified, as would the core messaging and the organizations eligible for funding.  Messaging and funding would focus on "good food work", defined by the Good Work for Good Food Forum (Klassen et al., 2023) as:

  1. recognized as valuable and skilled;
  2. fairly paid, often well-paid, and personally fulfilling;
  3. available to everyone regardless of personal identity or immigration status;
  4. safe and be carried out in a healthy and supportive environment;
  5. using technology where it assists workers;
  6. including opportunities for skills development and career progression;
  7. providing workers with access to social security support;
  8. having conditions and terms determined together with workers; and
  9. enablng workers’ freedom of association and engagement in collective action.

Use Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in a Human Resources framework

HR departments in many firms are overwhelmed with recruitment because of high staff turnover. High turnover can be expensive, with employee replacement costs ranging from $3500-50000 depending on salary and difficulties associated with finding suitable applicants (Zizys, 2011). “It has long been known that a more motivated, engaged and inspired workforce generates higher long-term productivity.” and that CSR can modestly increase productivity (Strangberg, 2009:10).

The ten guiding principles of CSR in HR (adapted from Strangberg, 2009 to food policy themes) are:

  1. Alignment of goals and vision with joined up food policy goals
  2. Redesign of employee codes of conduct to express joined up goals
  3. Alignment of plans that build and recruit for the firm with these goals through assessment of competencies and gaps
  4. Improved training and competency development, including peer-to-peer and community partnerships
  5. Expression of joined-up approach in job descriptions, performance plans and compensation (i.e., part of compensation is helping the organization deliver on joined-up approaches)
  6. Recognition of those already on-board with the new approach and providing incentives for the reluctant in the organization to change. Diehard opponents are not offered anything without transition.
  7. Investment in employee well being, interesting challenges and participation
  8. Integration of wellness, diversity, work-life balance and flex-time policies into the approach; working sustainable procurement into the organization (where applicable), including revamping employee services such as cafeterias
  9. Revamping internal communication systems
  10. Measurement, reporting and celebration of successes

Such transitions do not occur right away and can be major challenges to organizations; hence, they are more likely to occur at the substitution stage.

Create a network of vocational food system training centres

The University of Lincolnshire, UK created a special campus for the food industry, a Centre of Vocational Excellence. The Centre houses training and educational resources with strong links to the industry, essentially a food industry technical training partnership. It appears to be valuable, particularly for recent immigrants obtaining suitable training for the British food sector (Froy and Giguere, 2010).

Some of the pieces for a comparable network of food system vocational centres already exist in Canada. Over 130 community colleges and institutes are operating, and they claim to have in place some 6000 industry partnerships[6]. Many of their programs are designed for marginalized populations, including aboriginal students and recent immigrants. In most provinces are colleges offering agricultural and food system programming, although most of this is oriented to the dominant approaches and sectors. However, the Quebec CEGEP system has a long history of using federal and provincial funds for training in alternative approaches to food production, particularly organic farming.

Such a network would need facilitation through Colleges and Institutes Canada, which has a majority of the existing bodies as members.  The federal government has a history of providing seed money to new initiatives within the sector, e.g., the Community and College Social Innovation Fund, and something similar would need to be dedicated to a food system training network.

Integrate career clusters and pathways into employment advisory services

The predominance of SME firms and organizations in the Canadian food system suggests attempting to re-establish a traditional career ladder approach to employment is unlikely to be successful.  Instead, the ladder must happen across a sector or system, which promotes the need for career clusters and associated pathways. This requires collaboration across many institutions (Froy and Giguere, 2010).

Many of the efficiency and substitution initiatives proposed above set the stage for career clusters and pathways. But additionally, employers must be involved in identifying core competencies and curriculum requirements. A first step is to identify and develop career pathway models for food system work and then have them adopted as tools in the right places, starting with guidance counseling services in high schools. The US Dept Education takes a career clusters approach, linking employment across sectors with job descriptions showing how they are interdependent.  In their system, such pathways exist for agriculture and food[7], and hospitality and tourism[8].

This approach can also be facilitated by the Creneau d’excellence (niche sector) framework used in Quebec to support a number of sectors including food (OECD, 2014:91).  These are geographically proximate clusters that both compete and collaborate.  Their proximity and collaborative mechanisms facilitate sector-level training and career advancement.

A further enhancement of cluster ladders is provided by skills advisors / facilitators. Many OECD countries use them to work directly with employers to ensure that skills needs are well met and well used. They are part of demand side advisory structures. They appear to be particularly valuable for low skills areas such as retail (OECD, 2014).

Fund a food works programme

Public works programmes are typically part of government employment and economic development strategies.  It is rare, however, for such works programmes to focus on building food system infrastructure. The most pressing need is rebuilding small to medium scale infrastructure that focuses on regional and sustainable food markets.  A 2015 report on opportunities to regionalize the Ontario food system and effect environmental improvements at the same time found that replacing just 10% of Ontario’s top 10 fruit and vegetable imports with local production could generate about $250 million in increased GDP and approximately 3400 new full time equivalent jobs. The research revealed an economic multiplier of 2.24 on farm expenditures (Econometric Research et al., 2015). As about 50% of Ontario imports are products that can be produced, stored and processed within the province, the opportunities would appear to be significant, even more so if the diet of Ontarians shifts in line with Canada’s guidelines for healthy eating and increased consumption of key foods is met with regional production (see also Desjardins et al., 2010).

But many obstacles to regionalization exist, including the absence of critical SME processing, storage and market infrastructure (see Carter-Whitney, 2008), some of which could be redressed with a public food works programme. Capitalization is a critical problem for SME food firms and a public works programme can address parts of that challenge by using public funds to create infrastructure that SME firms cannot afford.  An emerging integrated infrastructure model (with multiple permutations) is the food hub, that provides a wide range of facilities for SME food firms and aggregates supply for more efficient distribution to local markets (see Campbell & MacRae, 2013). Such facilities lend themselves to a public – private collaboration approach, modeled on somewhat similar initiatives in Brasil.  There, many food facilities are owned and constructed by the state, but the operations are carried out by private firms under contract to government. The state sets the broad conditions of commerce and operation, and then the private firms provide services and generate a profit within that framework (see Rocha, 2001). The advantage of this approach is that it allows the state to mitigate dysfunctions in the market and meet larger societal objectives such as health and sustainability, while still unleashing the entrepreneurial power of SMEs. In addition to the jobs created by a public works project, the food hub approach permits the possibility of shared services and labour, creating the possibility of more stable, full-time and remunerative employment than often occurs with SMEs, especially those with seasonal production.

Establish a national system of food system sectoral councils

Economies with consensus building and negotiation, with attention to quality goods, income support and binding minimum wages, tend to have a lower percentage of low-wage workers  (Wilthhagen, 1998; Zizys, 2011). This typically requires corporatist organizations to engage in negotiations. Outside of Quebec, the corporatist tradition is quite weak in Canada, with competition between sectors, and some consultation, instead the norm.

Canada did experiment earlier with a roundtable/corporatist hybrid, Labour Force Development Boards (LFDBs).  Although some remnants still exist (local boards and some sectoral councils),  by and large they did not work at the provincial and federal levels (Haddow, 2002; Sharpe and Haddow, 1997). The absence of institutional fora to facilitate industrial relations and corporatist negotiation at a macro level was a primary reason for LFDB failure. It was above the sectoral level where most of the failures happened (Haddow, 2002) and there are a number of existing food subsectoral groups (three national sectoral councils for agriculture, processing and grocery respectively). The federal government continued to support sectoral councils, and some provinces as well, notably Quebec. Can the sectoral councils be revitalized to improve labour force governance in the food system?

The core idea is to design and provide services at the sectoral level to avoid poaching and other firm-level difficulties. While the labour force development boards were failing, the sectoral councils worked, in part because the discussions were less disrupted by large macro debates on intractable problems. Although the sectoral councils have been criticized for being unable to deal with cross-sectors, nor issues beyond the existing workforces of participants, having a food systems focus would compensate for those traditional weaknesses.

To be effective, the sectoral councils would have to address demand and supply side issues, and communicate needs to macro policy actors. The work of sectoral councils would be made easier with suitable demand side policies in place and that requirement also links their efforts to a joined-up food policy approach. Governance changes to deliver on joined up approaches are needed across the food system (see Goal 7). Food system roundtables are on the rise, especially at the local level (MacRae and Donahue, 2013).  McNicoll (2014) has proposed a national Food Policy Council (FPC) and some provincial ones also exist. It is sensible, then to link these two broad governance processes at each level – municipal, provincial, federal - and across them.

Building on what already exists, in many municipalities are FPCs, and labour force development boards[9] with a multifaceted agenda that includes food.  But geographic coverage is spotty for both bodies and more municipalities need to establish them. The second challenge is to connect them formally. Both bodies have attachments to municipal government, often with municipal officials as members.  Coordinating that membership so there is communication at the bureaucratic level would be one mechanism.  Having at least one member in common from non-governmental agencies would be another.

Each province would also need a sectoral council that gathers information from local labour force development boards and advocates labour force change to the provincial government. Because these have a food system focus, I propose they be subcommittees of provincial FPCs. The sectoral council chair would sit on the provincial FPC.

Similarly, at the federal level, building on McNicoll’s (2014) proposals for a federal FPC, a federal sectoral council addressing labour force issues should be established as a subcommittee, with the chair sitting on the federal FPC.  Following on the efficiency strategy to merge the 3 existing sub-sectoral HR councils, to create that subcommittee, their membership should be expanded so it reflects the main food system elements. Just as a national FPC would have representation from provincial ones, so would the national labour sector council have members from the provincial councils.


[1] ESDC. Timeline of measures coming into force. Retrieved from:

[2] See, for example, the Permitted Substances Lists of organic standards.

[3] The author was for 10 years a consultant to WWF-Canada, working with officials from these agencies on pesticide reduction plans.

[4] The original programme depended on provinces designating it a priority service to which funds should be allocated.

[5] See, for example, a programme in Saskatchewan,

[6] Retrieved from:

[7] Retrieved from:

[8] Retrieved from:

[9] In Ontario, the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) also supports a Network of Local Training Boards in 26 areas of the province