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Trade Agreements that Work

We have had an election. Throne Speech writers and Cabinet makers are putting the final touches on government priorities and selecting the Ministers who will implement the plan. What would you tell them if you had the chance?

The pork sector is hoping that policymakers are focusing on securing international access for our products. Trade is critically important to Manitoba’s hog farmers. Ninety percent of the pigs grown under our care are destined for international markets, either as pork products, processed in Manitoba, or as live exports.

The world goes through trade policy cycles. The negative impacts of protectionism and isolation result in periods of openness when barriers are torn down and people and goods move a bit more freely. For Canada, the late 1980s through the early 2000s was a period of openness. We negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States, later expanded to include Mexico. Large trade pacts were reached with the European Union (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or CETA) and Pacific nations (Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership or CPTPP). Canada has additional individual free trade agreements with countries in Latin and South America, Asia, and Europe.

Now, the pendulum is swinging the other way. Protectionism and isolation are back in vogue. This is dangerous and we need the Government of Canada to push back. Countries that have signed agreements to open trade are finding new non-tariff barriers to block imports. Calls for protectionism have been boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with policies of self-sufficiency becoming a key part of politicians’ talking points.

Canadian farmers need the Government of Canada to do more than sign trade agreements. We need leadership to ensure that these agreements deliver on the expected market opportunities.

CETA is one agreement that is not living up to expectations. Almost all sectors of Europe’s agri-food industry have seen a significant increase in exports to Canada since CETA has been signed. Despite initial optimism, there has not been an equivalent gain for Canadian farmers. This is because the European Union (E.U.) wins Olympic gold when it comes to finding new barriers to trade. The E.U. has developed non-tariff barriers to Canadian agricultural products, including pork, beef, canola, and durum wheat. This should not be acceptable.

Canada needs to use the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the dispute processes in agreements like CETA and CPTPP to actively challenge nonscience-based trade barriers. Europe’s refusal to accept our scientifically equivalent food safety standards for meat should be confronted more determinedly. Canada should not be willing to accept without dispute labelling laws that are thinly disguised barriers to our food. We need to stop being so polite and accepting.

Canada also needs to dedicate new resources into fighting protectionism. We should be posting new technical, science-based experts at our embassies abroad to proactively deal with trade irritants before politicians turn them into trade barriers. Having a science-based rapid response team available in key markets would go a long way to making sure that farmers realize the benefits that were expected when our trade agreements were signed.

And then there is China. China is not a market that Canada can afford to ignore or be shut out from. For example, China is both the world’s largest consumer and producer of pork. Their buying decisions are a key driver of international markets and a significant factor in the price received by Manitoba’s hog farmers. However, our trading relationship is difficult and is not functioning on predictable science-based rules.

We don’t have a trade agreement with China. However, China is a member of the WTO and should be held accountable to its trade obligations. Securing stable and predictable trade with China will also require new resources and people from the Government of Canada. Pork producers are calling for this increased focus to start with the appointment of an Assistant Deputy Minister, who is dedicated to fostering agriculture and food trade, to our embassy in Beijing.

The world has entered a new age of protectionism. The global pandemic has accelerated the trend, but it had started before the arrival of COVID-19. Unscientific and unjustified policies to limit Canadian exports are costing farmers millions. There are no quick solutions to this challenge, but farmers need a government that is willing to dedicate additional resources to securing market access and launch a more strategic approach to combating trade barriers, with Canadian farmers and exporters as partners.

Cam Dahl is General Manager, Manitoba Pork Council