Farmers already facing the big chill

For Canadian farmers, winter is coming in like a political and economic lion.

It's already sending chills through the agri-food community, and unfortunately –like the season itself — things will get worse before they get better, with profound implications for Canadian farmers and consumers, jobs and the price of milk, eggs and chicken.

The big chill is the threat to supply management, the legislated system that keeps prices at what Canadian dairy, egg and poultry farmers say they need to produce safe and quality food. They maintain they can't compete against cheap imports and keep up their same exemplary standards. Ottawa agrees, and erects tariffs at the border to keep them competitive.

This drives other countries nuts, particularly those who trade with us and accept our exports. They scoff at Canada's call for them to eliminate their trade-distorting agricultural subsidies when, they say, supply management makes Canada just as guilty.

It's not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but it's close enough to make the point — to them, Canada is hypocritical about open borders and trade.

Despite the criticism, Canadian trade negotiators have said supply management is non-negotiable in international talks.

Something has to give.

And soon, it could. The World Trade Organization (WTO), the referee for global trade, has been trying unsuccessfully for years to mediate an accord on agricultural subsidies. But it's not giving up. Now, it wants to get countries including Canada back to the negotiating table in Geneva this month.

The topic will be a draft of what could become a formula for cutting tariffs and trade-distorting agricultural subsidies. Last week, a draft of the formula was circulated.

And Canada made a fuss.

Canadian dairy, egg and poultry farmers say the draft fails to acknowledge supply management's traditional role in Canada and the "sensitive products" that would be significantly damaged without border protection.

"While (the WTO) technically acknowledge, for the first time, issues for supply management, the provisions for 'sensitive products' continue to be devastating to the Canadian dairy, poultry and egg sectors," says Jacques Laforge, President of Dairy Farmers of Canada.

He predicts the proposed provisions mean "about $1 billion in losses" for dairy farmers alone.

His colleague David Fuller, chair of Chicken Farmers of Canada, says the proposed changes would compromise 215,000 jobs related to supply management.

These are dire and deliberate predictions, being issued at a time when politicians need the agri-food sector to be Canada's economic beacon.

Federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Gerry Ritz agrees with the farm groups. He says Canada has "serious concerns" about elements of the proposed plan and how it impacts supply-managed industries. He plans to fight it.

"In the event of a meeting of WTO ministers in Geneva, the Government of Canada is going to continue to press hard to achieve all of its objectives," he says.

I'm not sure how this inflexibility will wash. Canadian negotiators can again show their counterparts from around the world others countries' exports are not appreciably impacted by Canada protecting its borders for dairy, poultry and eggs. Then the negotiators can once more demand supply management be left alone.

But besides being an economic matter, supply management is also a matter of principle, no matter if you're in Canada or halfway around the world.

Does a country have a right and an obligation to protect its own citizens — farmers, or whoever — from being hurt by others' unfair practices? Absolutely.

The question is: Who's being unfair?

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.