Producers must speak up on trade

Trade negotiations. I can almost hear the pages turning as people turn to other things that seem more relevant.

For years, everyone involved in agriculture has been subjected to the strong arguments on both sides of this issue. And yet, little seems to change.

For example, since 2001, the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of negotiations has tried to break through the entrenched interests, but to no avail. Many find this rather tiring.

Why should I pay attention? Do these negotiations have anything to do with what happens on my ranch or farm? Is there anything I can do about it? These are three of the most common questions I hear from producers when trade negotiations are discussed.

The fact is trade negotiations matter a great deal, and we are seeing progress. Perhaps not at the WTO, but we are seeing results through bilateral deals and entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

These deals are important to producers. We should be paying attention and we should ensure that our politicians are hearing the voices from the end of the gravel roads.

Trade is vital for the beef sector in particular because 50 percent of Canadian beef production is destined for export markets. Beef producers have always understood the significance of international trade.

However, the importance of open markets was hammered home in 2003 when a case of BSE slammed our borders shut. The loss of markets was devastating to our industry and has cost the Canadian economy billions. The industry is only now recovering from the impact of that sick cow.

Open trade strengthens the industry as a whole, creating opportunity for renewal and growth.

This is true for both established operations and young and beginning producers. Stable and open access to international markets not only supports the value chain but sustains jobs in rural communities and urban Canada.

Strong, stable liberalized trade also represents an opportunity for growth and rebuilding for Manitoba’s beef producers. This is critical to ranchers who have faced years of adversity, including BSE and floods.

However, it is not just beef that benefits. Freer trade will generate new opportunities for our grain and oilseed farmers, hog producers and likely new areas of production and food processing that we have not even thought about yet.

There is one resounding fact to remember when discussing trade. Manitoba’s economy is always better off with open borders and it always suffers when trade barriers are imposed. Manitoba’s ranchers and farmers should all be concerned if the only voice politicians hear on this issue comes from the opponents of open borders.

Agriculture should also be concerned about being left behind — again. Producers should be concerned that Canada may reach comprehensive new agreements that fail to include significant gains for agriculture. Agriculture depends on trade. We depend on open access. We cannot afford to be left out of any new agreements.

Our competitors, such as Australia and the United States, are not standing still. They are working to negotiate greater access.

For example, Australia is negotiating freer trade with Japan, one of Canada’s most important agricultural markets.

The status quo is not an option for Canada. Either we are part of these new agreements and we embrace the opportunities, or we sit on the sidelines and see our markets wither because others have negotiated preferential treatment.

Trade negotiations are in the news again. Now is the time for your voice to be heard. Special interest groups and individuals opposed to open markets are in regular contact with your MLAs and MPs, telling our elected leaders to stop.

Politicians must hear from more than just the special interests. They need your voice.

Cam Dahl is the general manager of Manitoba Beef Producers.

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