The Canadian dairy industry appears to be making a tactical error.
Dairy producers and supply management supporters are expressing surprise and dismay over the pending trade deal between Canada and the European Union. Their purposes would be better served by keeping their powder dry for the bigger battles that are likely yet to come.
It has long been clear that getting a trade deal with Europe was going to require dairy concessions from Canada. Deals are about give and take.
Why would the Europeans give Canadian beef, hogs and grain im-proved access if they didn’t get something in return?
In the end, it’s amazing how much Canada appears to be gaining and how little our dairy industry will be affected.
Yes, the high end cheese market will face increased competition from European cheese, but Canadian cheese consumption is growing and artisan cheese makers in this country can appeal to the “buy local” and “buy Canadian” sentiment to keep their customers.
It may not be the actual deal that has the dairy industry cheesed off. More likely it’s the principle. The Conservative government and all of the political parties have long been tripping over themselves to profess their support for supply management.
Now we clearly see what everyone already knew deep down in their hearts: the supply management system is not entirely sacred. The current government is prepared to risk the wrath of supply management for the sake of potentially much larger gains for other sectors of agriculture and for the overall economy.
Canada’s dairy and feather industries have been worrying about the future of supply management since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations of the late 1980s and early 1990s. World trade negotiations have almost entirely faded from view, but they’ve been replaced by bi-national and multi-lateral trade deals.
Not all the pressure comes from other countries wanting greater market access. There is considerable domestic lobbying from the grocery industry and buyers such as pizza makers who want access to cheaper cheese.
Some strategists might argue that now is the time to draw a line in the sand: don’t mess with supply management, even in a minor way, or else.
I’d argue that supply management should pick their battles more carefully. The new trade deal could potentially affect some small cheese makers, but the overall impact on dairy farmers would appear to be minute.
What if dairy producers mobilize and more dairy farmers and supporters vote for someone other than Conservative candidates in the next election? Will it be enough to tip the balance in some rural Ontario and Quebec constituencies? Or will the European trade deal mean a net gain in votes for the Conservatives?
Quite possibly, other issues such as the Senate scandal or Justin Trudeau’s popular appeal or his possible missteps will end up as pivotal in the next election, making any impact from an outraged supply management sector nearly impossible to measure.
If the Conservative government feels that it has lost supply management support anyway, what will stop other decisions that might be unpopular with the sector? If future governments with a different political stripe perceive that supply management carries no significant political clout, what decisions might they make when push comes to shove?
The dairy industry and by extension the entire supply management system should think about whether the EU trade deal is the issue on which to stake its future.
Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]