Feds on canola dispute: ‘Every ounce of effort’

Many in Canada’s agriculture sector believe politics is the only way to resolve China’s import ban on canola seed.

Few know more about that than Gerry Ritz, who was Canada’s agriculture minister from 2007 through 2015.

He dealt with a couple of China market access issues during his tenure as minister, including the canola blackleg situation.

The first thing he did was dispatch his “SWAT team” headed by assistant deputy minister Fred Gorrell.

“Within a day or two he’d be calling back saying, ‘OK, you need to meet with this, this, this, this person and then I’d be on a plane to make those meetings,” said Ritz.

He wonders why the Liberals haven’t had that kind of response.

“I haven’t seen that happen, haven’t seen that level of interest.”

Canada’s public safety minister and longtime Regina Member of Parliament, Ralph Goodale, said resolving the canola situation is among the federal government’s top trade priorities along with getting rid of American aluminum and steel tariffs.

“We’re applying every ounce of effort to it,” he said.

There have been reports that China is broadening the ban to include peas, flax, wheat and barley. Goodale has heard nothing to corroborate that.

But China consumes about 40 percent of Canada’s canola seed, oil and meal exports. The seed trade alone was worth $2.7 billion in 2018.

That’s why Ritz said high-level government officials need to get to China pronto to meet with the big players in the grain trade, such as Sinograin and COFCO, and convince them to help lobby the Chinese government to reopen trade.

Goodale said the government is communicating with Chinese officials through diplomatic channels and will dispatch senior diplomats and politicians when the time is right.

“It’s a strategic call and it needs to be very carefully considered,” he said.

Ritz said every market access situation is different. With the blackleg issue China had a genuine concern about the disease spreading from imported canola and infecting the country’s rapeseed crop.

“This one is pure politics,” he said.

Ritz has no doubt China is retaliating against Canada for the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

And that deserves a political response.

Goodale thinks the solution will come through a combination of political and technical discussions.

He said it is in Canada’s best interest to keep the discussion on a scientific and technical basis because Canada has done nothing wrong.

“We can be confident we’re as clean as a whistle,” he said.

Ritz said another thing that needs immediate attention is to appoint a permanent Canadian ambassador in China rather than working with an interim one.

He believes the Liberal government should bring in someone like former Canadian ambassador David Mulroney or Guy Saint-Jacques, people who have lived there, know the politics and speak the language.

Goodale said they are in the process of filling that position as rapidly as they can.

“The goal is obviously to have someone who can hit the ground running, who has the appropriate backgrounds and strengths, including communicating in Mandarin,” he said.

In the meantime, Goodale said charge d’affaires Jim Nickel is doing a superb job in China.

Ritz believes there will eventually be a resolution to the trade impasse but it could take a while because Canada has not endeared itself to China by following through with the United States request to detain the Huawei executive.

“This is going to be a tough one,” he said.

“One of the first arguments I had to win with the Chinese was we’re not the extra state of the United States. We’re autonomous. Once they got that under their hats we started to make some inroads.”

Goodale agreed with Ritz that there are important and difficult issues that need to be resolved and that could take some time.

“No one should expect this problem to be easily resolved. It’s going to take a lot of hard work,” he said.

One thing that puzzles Ritz is why China targeted canola. If the Chinese government wanted to punish the Liberals for their actions they should not have picked a commodity grown in a region that is politically dominated by the Conservatives.

“If the Chinese really wanted to tweak the Liberals from a political perspective they should be going after Maritime seafood and Ontario pork and British Columbia fruits and berries,” he said.

Goodale said he wasn’t at liberty to comment on China’s tactics.

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