Voters deserve answers on supply management

Canadian objectives for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks and future trade deals must be made clear.

Specifically, Canadians who make their living off agriculture deserve to know what is on the negotiating table, lest they wake up one morning and find their markets, their competitors and their customers have changed drastically from when they went to bed.

When the latest round of TPP talks broke down recently, there were reports that the Conservative government had put supply management on the negotiating table. The reports stated that trade minister Ed Fast offered to increase the quota limit on dairy allowed into the country. Poultry supply management tariffs were also said to be on table.

The TPP talks ultimately broke down over other issues, but the offer marks a momentous change in Canada’s long-standing trade policy of protecting supply management at all costs.

While the government has never confirmed the reports, neither has it denied them.

The Canadian dairy industry generated $5.9 billion in net farm receipts in 2012. It has provided a stable and reasonable income year after year, escaping much of the ups and downs faced by other agricultural sectors.

And as dairy farmers around the world struggle to cope with low prices on international markets, it is no wonder supply management producers want to hold on to their system.

However, dairy farmers and, to a lesser extent poultry producers, are not the only ones with much at stake.

Canada’s beef, pork, grain and oilseed industries stand to gain from preferred access to Asian markets should a deal proceed. For example, the beef industry did $100 million in exports to Japan last year, notwithstanding a 38.5 percent tariff.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association predicts that amount could triple under better trade conditions.

As well, export dependent agricultural sectors point to the crippling effects Canada could face if it were left out of the TPP, while other key competitors, such as Australia and the United States, gained preferred access to Asian markets.

If foreign access to Canada’s dairy market was indeed offered as reports state, there is now no going back. Once on the table, the offer will remain there, and will also likely become a negotiating chip in other future trade talks.

Yet the Conservatives, the NDP and Liberals are less than direct when asked to clarify their positions.

They all express support for supply management, but how far that extends they will not say.

A simple question put to all three major parties needs to be answered: would you relax supply management protections if it was the only way for Canada to gain entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

Producers’ futures across all agricultural sectors depend on the answer.

Knowing which party best represents their views and interests is information that should be key to many farmers’ voting decisions on Oct. 19.

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