An arms-length government agency that has awarded $223 million since 2008 to help the province’s livestock industry is being dismantled by the provincial government.
The Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA) — which employs 27 to 35 people at any given time — will be absorbed into the Agriculture and Forestry Department, a move that is expected to save the province $3 million annually.
Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier said it was a difficult decision to make, but the government believes the work ALMA was doing can be streamlined with work being done within government.
“These are good people, they’ve done some great work over the years … but it’s mostly about a cost-saving measure,” Carlier said, adding at least some of ALMA’s employees will be able to find work within the department.
Created in 2009 by Progressive Conservative agriculture minister George Groeneveld, ALMA funds research and programs aimed at increasing market access and enhancing competitiveness for the livestock industry. Over its seven-year history, it has invested in a wide range of scientific research, from studies of the prions that cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) to genomics to animal health.
It has also invested in the private sector in an effort to improve meat processing capacity in Alberta. Both the Cargill Foods plant at High River and the former XL Foods plant at Brooks received grants through ALMA to invest in technology upgrades and food safety procedures, as have a number of smaller plants.
Carlier said the NDP government will honour all current contracts and programs being funded by ALMA, and going forward, intends to continue to invest in livestock sector innovation and research. However, the funding for this work — previously awarded by ALMA and now to be handled within the department — is being reduced in 2016 by $8 million, from $32.7 million to $24.7 million.
ALMA board chair David Chalack said the government’s move to dissolve the agency is “regrettable.” He said ALMA staff spent many hours travelling around rural Alberta speaking to livestock industry stakeholders — a level of contact he believes it will be challenging for government staff to replicate.
He added that even though the government has said it plans to keep up the work ALMA was doing, the significant cut in program funding announced in this week’s budget will make that difficult.
“What is the longer term commitment of this government to the research and programs that are required to drive innovation and diversification in this sector? I don’t have an answer for that,” Chalack said.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which has worked closely with ALMA on several projects over the years, said it too would like clarity around the government’s long-term plans.
“Right now, it sounds like it’s business as usual,” said CCA general manager Rob McNabb. “It’s the future we’re not sure of, in terms of what the province of Alberta will bring to the table for industry research.”
While many in the agriculture industry benefited from ALMA, it was never wholly embraced by the farm community. Some producers felt it favoured certain groups and projects over others for funding. During the 2012 provincial election campaign, the Wildrose party said it would dismantle ALMA — although leader Danielle Smith later backed down from that stance, saying she would have to do more consultation with farmers before deciding on the future of the board.
ALMA will not cease operating as a separate board immediately, but will be wound down over a period of several months.
The provincial government said it will create a new advisory panel to provide advice on strategies for diversifying the agriculture industry and capitalizing on new and potential market opportunities.