Are crops and meat Canada’s best soft power tools?

An agricultural think tank thinks they could be

Are you hoarding toilet paper?

How about white flour?

Cheese?

From trips to my local supermarket and posts on my social media accounts, it seems like lots of people are. If you were planning to spend this month baking bread and using a lot of toilet paper and haven’t already stocked up, forget about it.

And that hoarding mentality, provoked by fears of social and industrial shutdowns caused by COVID-19, is extending far beyond individual consumers. Some countries are hoarding grains, oilseeds and any crop that their people might need, or believe they might need. (Allaying fears of food shortages can be just as important as dealing with any actual shortages, because the fear can cause the hoarding that creates real shortages, even when there is no shortage of product at the manufacturer and producer level.)

Kazakhstan has blocked grain exports. Russia has moved to restrict their processed grain exports. Vietnam is throttling rice exports. The world is awash with grains, as depressed prices for years has proven, but humanity is suddenly very scared that it’s about to run out.

That’s where Canada’s opportunity comes in, thinks Agri-Food Economic Systems, headed by noted agricultural economist Al Mussell and his colleagues Ted Bilyea and Douglas Hedley. Canada is part of a very small club of major crop and meat producers that are significant net exporters. Many places export agricultural goods and food, but many of those, including the European Union and China, import more than they export. That’s why they’re getting scared. Others, like India, are relatively balanced in imports and exports, but that doesn’t leave them feeling aggressive with exports in a year of fear of food shortages. Even the United States, a major player in many markets, is only a modest net exporter, leaving it far less reliant and committed to the world markets.

Of course food-poor nations like South Korea and Japan, which can’t come close to feeding themselves, feel food shortage fears more than others. They know they’re vulnerable. That applies as well to Africa’s four largest nations, Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa, which all import considerably more than they export.

” . . . there are very few countries with material capacity to generate net exports in excess of their own needs . . . Only Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Kazakhstan, Paraguay, Thailand and Ukraine exceeded 30 percent net exports in excess of their own production in 2017,” write Mussell, Bilyea and Hedley in The New Trade Economy of Food Security: Repositioning Canada.

What does that mean in these fraught times, where even in Western Canada – sometimes called the “Breadbasket of the World” – there can be a shortage of wheat flour? To the economists, it’s a window of opportunity for little Canada to counteract some of the damage the giants like the U.S., China, India and the E.U. have inflicted on smaller nations. The growing protectionism and power-based bilateral deal-making indulged in by the big guys has left less populous and powerful countries like Canada trying to protect the position they developed in decades of the “rules-based trading order.” Just a few months after the situation was looking dire for Canadian exports, abused by China, squeezed by EU regulators and strangled by India’s openly protectionist policies, the present world food shortage fears offer and opportunity to gain back some market power. But that market power won’t be based on a muscular geopolitical power flexed by strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. It’ll come from being willing to offer fearful foreign people the food they can’t supply for themselves.

“As some countries actively limit exports and hoard product, it presents Canada with a strategic opportunity to focus on a soft power approach in agriculture and food,” they write.

“By staying the course with its significant export capacity, Canada can further elevate its position and increase its International influence, countering the trends of geopolitical power politics.”

But that will require all levels of government to actively protect and promote export agriculture. That might feel easy for many to ignore when even butt wipe has become a precious commodity, but it’s Canada’s best chance to win back some of its lost influence in world markets.

“In its privileged position, Canada has an opportunity,” conclude the researchers.

“Without this, Canada will remain within the clutches of the big powers as they redesign trade policies to their own benefit, to the exclusion of small and medium-sized countries.”

 

 

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