Protein trade urged to resist overdependence on U.S.

Canada needs to focus on developing its competitive edge with agricultural exports to Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.

If Canada reverts to a United States focus with its plant protein developments, it will be ignoring the gains made in recent trade deals, worries the Canada West Foundation’s trade expert.

“The reality is that we have two new NAFTAs with the European Union and with the Pacific rim,” said Carlo Dade in an interview.

“I worry that things like the Protein Highway distract us from really being able to pursue these opportunities. We’ll always have the U.S.”

The Protein Highway is a strategy developed by the Canadian consulate in Minneapolis to connect plant protein producers and processors in Western Canada and the U.S. Upper Midwest. With mountains of soybeans, dry beans and other high-protein crops grown in that region of the U.S. and huge amounts of canola and pulse crops grown in the adjoining Canadian provinces, the centre of North America is uniquely positioned to boost plant protein production.

With plant-based protein becoming a mass enthusiasm for consumers, grocery stores and restaurants, there is great potential for expanded North American production, proponents believe.

The Protein Highway region’s provincial and state government agriculture ministers and secretaries on July 15 signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to work together to help the plant protein sector develop during this period of sudden interest.

But Dade thinks Canada needs to both take advantage of access to overseas markets that aren’t available to the U.S. and lower its reliance upon the American market.

“I’m somewhat concerned about deeper co-operation with the Americans. I think we should be looking at deeper co-operation with the Europeans,” said Dade.

Europeans have raised this issue with Dade, he said, because they have been expecting Canadians to take advantage of the Canada-European Union trade deal, which is just going into effect.

That deal gives Canada preferential access to the European market compared to the U.S., which faces tariffs on many products.

Mexico, due to its own deal with the EU, also has better European access than the U.S. To Dade that suggests that Canadian protein interests should be working with Mexican players to develop products for the European market. If Canadian protein providers, developers and processors get too enmeshed with American partners, they won’t be able to export as easily to the EU under the preferential terms of the Canada-EU deal, he fears.

Similarly, with the members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Canada should be jumping to take advantage of preferential access to markets like Japan and Vietnam now, while the Americans still face greater barriers to those markets.

“The Americans are always going to be years behind,” said Dade.

“The opportunity now is to get in while the Americans are on the sideline. Become the preferred supplier now. Build those relationships. Build that trust.”

The U.S. market is huge, next-door and lucrative, but that can create a dangerous overreliance, some observers think. When there are no problems with access, a U.S.-focused approach can seem to make sense, but when access is blocked or threatened, dependence upon the U.S. can seem overly risky.

With plant protein demand rapidly increasing as Canada’s new trade deals kick in, there is a window of opportunity before the industry.

“The Protein Highway (idea) to my mind is the old way of thinking, that we only have one (international trade) agreement, and that’s with the U.S.,” said Dade.

“If you can get into countries that allow you to take advantage of the EU market, or allow you to take advantage of the TPP, then you’re looking at not just doing a little hustle, but … you’re looking at the big play of being the supplier of choice (for much of the world).”

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