Trade issues frustrating but Canada well positioned

Opportunities for Canadian agricultural products are expanding as the world deals with supply chain disruptions. A health worker checks the temperature of a labourer arriving atop a trailer of wheat at a wholesale grain market in Chandigarh, India.  |   Reuters/Ajay Verma photo

It is irritating when a trade partner puts up a barrier we think is unjust, blocking what was a lucrative market.

And we get frustrated with our government’s inability to get the trade partner to change their minds.

Current examples are China’s restrictions on Canada’s canola, India’s restrictions regarding fumigation of pulse crops, Italy’s country-of-origin labelling on durum.

With the World Trade Organization at its weakest point in recent memory, the simmering trade war between China and United States, the increased use of non-tariff trade barriers, and a rising tide around the world of nationalism, we naturally begin to worry that Canada’s position as a leading exporter of agricultural products is jeopardized .

Agriculture Canada has set a goal of increasing agri-food exports to $75 billion by 2025 from $66 billion in 2018.

Is that possible if the rules-based liberal trade order built up following the Second World War fades away and differences are instead settled in favour of the most mighty rather than who is in the right?

We are right to be concerned and to look for policy adjustments and new strategies.

But we need not despair. Canada is one of a fairly small number of countries that can produce far more food than its residents can consume. It has undeniable strengths in its huge land resource, skilled labour force, access to the most advanced technology in inputs and machinery and to financing. It has standards and safeguards to ensure we produce food of quality and safety among the best in the world.

Canada also is a member of many bilateral and regional trade agreements that supply the rules-based relationships on a smaller scale that are waning on the multilateral, global front.

All these strengths give Canadian producers a competitive advantage to capture their share of the world’s growing food demand.

And as the Producer’s Ed White noted in a column in mid-May, even adversaries will loosen their buying restrictions when they really need food and you are one of the few who can supply what they need.

For example, although China last year blocked imports of Canadian meat for several months, it removed those restrictions when its demand for pork could not be met domestically because African swine fever decimated its hog herd.

Its imports of Canadian pork in the first four months of this year stand at $615 million, more than in all of 2019 or 2018.

But ultimately, Canada’s agri-food trade success depends on the country’s ability to be most desirable source of world leading products.

That means we have to fix the problems at home that prevent us from fully capitalizing on our competitive advantages.

To do that, all sectors from producer to processor, investor to transporter, researcher to government policy maker must all work to identify weaknesses in the value chain and resolve to fix them.

Canada launched value chain roundtables in 2003. They have had some successes but more could be done.

The next step in the right direction was the 2017 report from the Advisory Council on Economic Growth chaired by Dominic Barton that identified agri-food as a key sector that could help lead Canada’s economic growth.

It helped build consensus among government and industry of the need to remove regulatory barriers that hinder innovation and competitiveness, and put in their place agile systems to support innovation. There is also consensus to address shortfalls in transportation, rural broadband access, labour shortages and recognition of the need to scale up Canadian businesses to compete internationally.

One result from that report was the creation of the superclusters, which include the protein industries arm that appears to have the government and industry funding fire to take that sector to the next level.

But I fear that these promising developments can be weakened by a government that at its highest levels allows its focus and effectiveness to be diverted and diluted by its wish to signal its virtue and progressiveness in every action.

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