The recent barrage of supply management criticism is either ill informed or ideologically driven, says the leader of Canada’s largest farm organization, which represents supply management agencies.
Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett said the “flurry” of negative studies and media stories about the drawbacks of the dairy, poultry and egg marketing systems is misplaced.
“I would say in many cases the critics just don’t understand how the system works,” Bonnett said.
“I would say also that a part of it is ideological, people who just don’t like to see anything but a theoretical model of free trade that doesn’t really exist.”
However, he said farmers must fight back against the intense coverage of criticisms from economists, think-tanks, academics and media that argue supply management gouges consumers and thwarts trade deals.
Despite the critics, political support remains strong.
“There is a reason that we have strong political support and it is because politicians realize the system works,” said Bonnett.
“But we have to do a better job of educating the public about how the system also works for them despite the negative propaganda about consumers being the losers.”
The CFA counts among its members the supply managed dairy, chicken, turkey and egg sectors that rely on production controls to target production to domestic demand, set prices and impose high tariffs to control imports.
The universal political support for supply management on Parliament Hill was fractured recently when former Liberal MP and trade critic Martha Hall Findlay called for phasing out the system. She is expected to be a candidate in the Liberal party leadership race that will kick off this summer and end early next year.
It would make the long-standing Liberal support for supply management a key point of debate in the leadership contest.
She argued in a study published by the University of Calgary that supply management creates trade problems for Canada but is also regressive policy that penalizes poor Canadian families the most.
She also said many of her former political colleagues support that view and consider it inappropriate policy but are afraid of the political repercussions of saying it.
Bonnett said the argument that Canadians pay more because of supply management “is simply not true.”
A highly concentrated retail sector sets dairy product prices, he said. The farmer share of the dairy or poultry dollar is a small part of the consumer price.
He said the lack of volatility and a reliable supply in the Canadian dairy market is good for consumers.
“We have decades of experience, and the Canadian portion of income spent on food remains one of the lowest in the world,” he said.
Bonnett noted general non-partisan political support for the system, even as the government pursues trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership in which supply management is an issue.
“The government has made promises and is supportive,” he said. “And the fact that the opposition is supportive helps keep the Conservatives true to their commitments.”