U.S. senators demand grain access to Canada

A letter that legislators sent to the U.S. chief agricultural trade negotiator claims that only three percent of spring wheat varieties grown in the northern states are eligible for Canadian Western Red Spring designation at Canadian elevators.  |  File photo

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Four American senators want Canada’s grain industry to “level the playing field” when it comes to the trade of wheat across the United States-Canadian border.

Senators Tina Smith (Minnesota), John Hoeven (North Dakota), Kevin Cramer (North Dakota) and Steve Daines (Montana) signed a letter dated July 8, arguing that Canada needs to change its grain grading and variety registration system to allow the import of more wheat and durum from their states.

“The ability for our growers to export wheat of domestic origin to Canada has been long sought as a measure to level the playing field for our producers,” the senators wrote in a letter to Gregg Doud, U.S. chief agricultural trade negotiator.

“Access to Canada’s market will continue to be inhibited based on Canada’s requirement that strictly limits the varieties of wheat that can be included in its premium classes, such as Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) and Canadian Western Amber Durum (CWAD).”

The letter claims that only three percent of spring wheat varieties grown in the northern states are eligible for CWRS designation at Canadian elevators. And only six percent of the durum produced in North Dakota and Montana qualifies for the CWAD classification.

The timing of the letter is significant because the U.S. Congress is considering ratification of the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), the updated version of NAFTA that was negotiated in 2018.

However, a line in the letter suggests this issue, of wheat and durum market access into Canada, isn’t a deal breaker for the four senators.

“We support the United States in identifying a common ground that will promote fair trade of grains between the United States and Canada,” they said. “Once the USMCA is approved by Congress, we urge you to work closely with Canada, through the Consultative Committee on Agriculture, to modernize its VRS (Variety Registration System).”

Jim Peterson, North Dakota Wheat Commission marketing director, said the letter is a reminder to U.S. trade negotiators that farmers in the northern Plains are frustrated with the imbalance in wheat trade between the two countries.

“The first thing we hear (from growers), especially the last couple of years, is we’ve had a record amount of durum coming down from Canada…. They (farmers) see the trucks rolling by, or the trains. And we’re sitting here (and) we can’t access the Canadian market,” Peterson said from his office in Bismarck, N.D. “Producers look at it and say: where’s the fairness on this?”

While the letter raises the issue, it also congratulates the U.S. trade negotiators for mentioning grain grading and classification in the USMCA text.

The USMCA says:

“At the request of the other Party, the Parties shall discuss issues related to the … domestic grain grading or grain class system.”

In a way the senators’ letter is a call to action, to follow up on that paragraph from the USMCA.

“We can’t change the language in the agreement,” Peterson said.

“But at the same time, they (the senators) feel very strongly (that) they want to get a commitment from Canadian negotiations, or in this case Gregg Doud, to make this a priority.”

For many growers in North Dakota, a state that produces the majority of America’s spring wheat and durum, exporting to Canada is a concern and Canada’s variety registration rules are an irritant.

But it’s not a “top of mind” issue, Peterson said.

There is a feeling, though, that North Dakota spring wheat and durum is comparable to Canadian wheat. Therefore, it’s unfair for Canada to discriminate against U.S. varieties.

“On the international scheme of things … Canadian spring and durum wheat and U.S. spring and durum wheat is at the top of the pinnacle,” Peterson said, noting there may be tiny differences in gluten strength or pasta colour.

“But when it’s all said and done, they’re very similar.”

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