Bills don’t protect farmers, strong trade agreements do

Supply management shouldn’t need bills of the House of Commons to defend it against further quota erosion due to trade skirmishes. Hard negotiations at the international trade tables are where Canadian agriculture should be protected. And it was, in the fine print.

A recently introduced private member’s bill, Bill 216, that would put supply managed agriculture off-limits in future trade negotiations, potentially heightens the threat to the sector.

Quebec member of Parliament Louis Plamondon with support from Manitoba MP Daniel Blaikie and others, would send a message to Americans and others that we are willing to put an over-sized value on one sector of our economy to protect it from being traded off in exchange for something we need in a trade deal. As well, whatever we declare non-negotiable could become a political target here at home.

We call them free-trade agreements, but in reality they are just trade agreements. Something is always being bartered for something else.

Reducing tariffs and trade barriers is necessary for Canada to maintain its balance of trade, especially in resource commodity exporting Western Canada.

When it comes to making deals with our customer-nations, something must always give. For the foreseeable future that will be the easiest targets that can be had at the lowest cost here at home.

Unfortunately, for the dairy and feather sectors they are easy political targets for opportunistic foreign politicians looking for vocal farmer support back home.

Take the Canada-United States-Mexico trade agreement. The ink is still wet and the Americans have picked their first fight. The United States filed an enforcement action under the agreement to halt how Canada limits market access to U.S. dairy exports.

None other than the soon to be re-minted U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack is leading the charge against Canadian agriculture, suggesting that while Canada might be living up to the letter of the new trade agreement, we aren’t living up to the spirit. Until he takes on his new job in January, Vilsack is the head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

“Canada’s actions place the U.S. dairy industry at a disadvantage by discouraging utilization of the full use of the (tariff rate quotas) and limiting the market access granted by (the free trade deal),” he said.

Canada’s side of the story is that we provided Canadian processors and distributors the option to access the premium American dairy products and they declined to take full advantage of it. Now, Canadian processors, who are also the largest distributors, would be competing against those American products, so it makes sense that they might not want the imports crowding their dairy cases.

The Americans claim Canada did this with the previous agreement too. Which begs the question, why didn’t they negotiate that away during the recent trade dealings if it was so important? Raising it now seems like bad faith.

The USDEC’s issue about Canadian TRQs wasn’t pushed during the negotiations because the Americans had other, more expensive issues to deal with at the table and didn’t want to have to compromise something valuable in exchange for what is a small agricultural issue they could make noise about later.

Canada shouldn’t be trading away the fruits of any of its primary industries in exchange for market access in other countries, especially where we must compete with massive foreign subsidies and farmer-direct payments, such as is the case in American agriculture, including dairy. In bargaining, American dairy conveniently forgets its subsidies and its illegal labour force that provides market advantages Canadian farmers don’t have.

It would be naive to think that passing a bill in the House of Commons to protect farmers from future trade-offs gives real international protection of the industry. And it might paint a target on it here at home.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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