Trade deals not passing muster

VANCOUVER — Canada’s top trade warriors have strongly underlined their commitment to fight for fair treatment of Canadian farm products in the global marketplace.

But the growing exasperation of the agriculture industry with the obstructionist antics of foreign trading partners was evident during the Canadian Crops Convention.

Signed trade deals that once seemed to offer so much have failed to deliver anything near what had been hoped.

“They’re not working for the people in this room,” said Cam Dahl, president of Cereals Canada, addressing Canada’s Chief Trade Commissioner, Ailish Campbell.

“Those agreements have to work, and to work they have to be enforced.”

That sentiment has been widespread in Canadian farm and agriculture circles, as farmers and food exporters have faced trade barriers from countries like Italy and Vietnam, with whom Canada has recently concluded deals such as the CETA with Europe and CPTPP with Asian countries.

Campbell and Fred Gorrell, Canada’s director general of the Market Access Secretariat, offered firm commitments to keep fighting for fair treatment of Canadian farmers and agriculture in the global marketplace. However, Gorrell underlined the rearguard actions they’re having to take to protect the rules-based international trading order from the rising tide of protectionist sentiment.

Gorrell cited the danger of bilateral trade agreements becoming the go-to deals now favoured by some major players, because they can undermine basic principles of the World Trade Organization, creating “ambiguity, lack of predictability, and it makes it difficult for us to trade.”

Campbell said that Canada can’t adopt the approach of players with vast geopolitical weight, because it is a much smaller entity on the world stage,

“We just don’t have some of the market power, nor do we have the geostrategic security apparatus that the U.S. can add to the mix,” she said.

“We have to be realistic about where we fit in the global picture.”

Both Campbell and Gorrell were vocal promoters of the value of Canadian agriculture in boosting Canada’s trade and national wealth.

“I think we’ve set ourselves a pretty ambitious stretch goal,” Campbell said about the federal target of increasing agrifood exports from $60 billion to $75 billion by 2025.

“The grains, oilseeds and pulses sectors are an essential part of meeting that goal.”

She said her trade commissioners around the world are working diligently on the trade barriers.

“Our team will not rest until full market access is restored,” said Campbell.

“Market access issues here and abroad are always top of mind for me and my team. We are seized with the need to combat protectionism and trade barriers in all sectors.”

Gorrell said the spread of protectionist sentiment means Canada must reduce over-reliance upon a handful of big markets.

Canada should focus on a “short list” of key markets and keep close contact with them before any problems arise.

One challenge Canada faces with keeping foreign markets happy, Gorrell said, is the unreliability of the transportation system.

“Every meeting” is how he summed up the frequency of concerns being raised by foreign buyers about the dependability of the Canadian system to deliver on time.

The recent rail blockades have exacerbated the situation.

“Some of them are already indicating they’re looking for other sources,” said Gorrell.

The blockades have added to longstanding concerns about Canada’s ability to reliably supply overseas buyers.

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