Federal trade agenda vital to agricultural prosperity

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper and his government are under pressure lately, whether it be the robocall scandal or questions over the F-35 fighter jet deal.

So when there’s a bright spot in government policy efforts, as now exists in the trade file, it deserves to be recognized.

Recently, Harper, trade minister Ed Fast, foreign affairs minister John Baird and agriculture minister Gerry Ritz took their lobby efforts to Asia to push forward negotiations on trade deals with Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

The government has also been furiously knocking on doors of countries involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership to gain a voice at the negotiating table as nine countries wrestle to come up with a plan for more liberalized trade.

That’s a wise move, given that the stakes at the Trans-Pacific talks are potentially huge.

By being present during the development stages, Canada can influence the framework and the rules upon which future trade in the region may depend. That is much more favourable than signing a deal later into which it has no input.

As well, if Japan gets its wish to be included in the talks, and if other Trans-Pacific countries gain favoured access, Canada risks losing its ability to compete against the likes of New Zealand, Australia and the United States in some of its most lucrative markets..

The Conservatives have other potential deals in the works as well. Canada is in talks with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, India and at least 11 others.

As well, there are the broader World Trade Organization and North American Free Trade Agreement deals.

In a nation that produces far more than it consumes, trade arrangements are the agricultural sector’s lifeblood and their importance is only going to grow.

With the world struggling to come up with ways to feed a booming population, which is expected to reach 10 billion people by 2083, according to the United Nations, freer exchanges of food and other goods are essential to survival for many. Canada, with its high relative ratio of resources and land to people, is well situated to become a key solution to this worldwide problem.

As well, with WTO discussions at a standstill, Canada must strike deals with individual countries whenever it can or risk falling behind other countries with ambitious trade agendas.

Skeptics have rightly pointed out that more transparency during the negotiation stages would be appropriate so that farmers and other interested parties can see exactly what is being lost and gained. However, at least for now, the government’s continued attention to trade is a positive sign.

No matter where our trade routes lead us, the U.S. will remain our core partner for the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t hurt to have insurance. We’ve seen politics upset the U.S. trade agenda in the past, such as the job creation bill of a few years ago that left Canadian companies unable to bid for U.S. contracts, despite NAFTA arrangements.

As well, we have heard ominous warnings that farmers in North Dakota and Montana could become unsettled if they see long lines of grain trucks with Canadian licence plates lined up at U.S. elevators.

Yet we should not put trade before all other interests. U.S. and New Zealand demands that Canada drop supply management in the dairy and poultry industries in exchange for a seat at the Trans-Pacific talks are not to be taken seriously.

Did the U.S. give up its market loan guarantees, biofuel subsidies or other programs before it sat down at the table?

Canada should not give up one of its most stable and beneficial farm programs before it even gets to the discussion room. That message must be delivered loud and clear.

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