Critics of a massive new trade deal between Canada and 11 other Pacific Rim countries worry what the effect will be on two important Chilliwack agricultural industries: Dairy and poultry.
As International Trade Minister and Abbotsford MP Ed Fast continues to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), dairy and poultry farmers say concessions sought by the United States could upend their industries.
The TPP aims to lower trade barriers and increase free trade between 12 countries, including Canada, the United States, Japan, Mexico and Australia.
And while agriculture is but one small part of this massive trade deal, several reports suggest that the U.S. is asking Canada to abandon its supply management system, which guarantees dairy and poultry farmers set prices for their products, which are distributed by marketing boards.
“Our biggest concern is that it is not a level playing field,” Agassiz dairy farmer and BC Dairy Association board member Holger Schwichtenberg told the Times. “We are competing against subsidized industries in the States and in Europe. . . . Small family farms will be impacted by something like this if it doesn’t go our way.”
In May, the Dairy Farmers of Canada released a statement that called for continued support of supply management, but noted that as talks progress, and trade pressure increases, “the level of anxiety among our farmers and industry partners is also intensifying.”
Ray Nickel, the president of the BC Poultry Association, said his industry has been told that supply management “is a high priority and not going to be traded away,” but he added that farmers remain concerned that secret negotiations could do away with the system with little notice.
Of British Columbia’s 500 poultry producers, 80 per cent are located in the Fraser Valley.
On Friday, Reuters, citing anonymous sources, reported that talks had stalled over agriculture trade rules and that the U.S. is considering excluding Canada from the negotiations if it didn’t make “a serious offer on dairy, poultry and agriculture market access.”
Chilliwack chicken farmer and city councillor Chris Kloot, however, is confident his industry will survive the negotiations.
“Chicken farmers of B.C. support the Canadian government trade policy of expanding market access, improving trade rules and preserving supply management,” he told the Times via email. “This model has been successful through the completion of 12 trade agreements with 43 countries. The claim by some countries that supply managed commodities are protectionist is unfounded.
“For example, Canada imports more chicken than six of the other TPP countries combined, including the U.S.”
Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon MP Mark Strahl said he has relayed local concerns to Fast on multiple occasions, including this past weekend, and he’s been told they are being heard by Canada’s most senior negotiators on a regular basis.
“Our Conservative Government is committed to defending our system of supply management,” Strahl said in an emailed statement. “Reports that Canada has made particular concessions are false. Negotiations are ongoing. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has stated that we will only sign an agreement that’s in Canada’s best interests.”
Speaking to the Abbotsford News Tuesday, Fast expressed hope that a deal could be done that maintained supply management.
“We will continue to promote and defend the interests of the supply management system,” he said. “We have negotiated trade agreements with 39 different countries all around the world and supply management has never prevented us from concluding one of those trade agreements and we fully expect the TPP to be no different.”
Last Thursday, Bloomberg News reported that Fast had told its editorial board that Canada wouldn’t sacrifice the deal for its dairy and poultry sectors.
“We have said to the supply-managed industry we will continue to promote and defend their interests whenever we negotiate trade agreements, but I think they also understand we have to find a balance that allows the rest of the economy to participate within the global marketplace,” Fast told Bloomberg News. “All issues are open for discussion in negotiations.”
Nickel said that while farmers realize that trade deals require compromises, the Canadian poultry industry “can’t sustain a lot more unfettered access.”
While other countries argue that Canadian trade barriers block their access to the local market and some commentators say they increase prices, Nickel said the system allows producers to operate without the taxpayer-funded subsidies given to farmers in other countries.
“Consumers are not paying any tax-hidden cost.” He said price disparities are worst closer to the border because American distributors increase supply in order to draw Canadian customers.
Nickel said the system also allows smaller farmers to operate and discourages factory-farming practices seen in the U.S.
“The fear is that if you start to dismantle our system here . . . it will completely effect the way our economy works,” he said.
Nickel worries that the TPP will be a repeat of a previous trade agreement in which a last minute deal gave European producers more access to Canada’s cheese market without consultation with industry.
Schwichtenberg reiterated this point.
“We are certainly concerned about it,” he said. “You’ve seen what happened with CETA [Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement], 17,000 tonnes of access was given to the Europeans.”
And while Chilliwack chicken farmer Kloot is confident Canada’s negotiations won’t adversely affect his industry, dairy farmer Schwichtenberg’s position veers closer to cautious optimism.
“A lot of us with like 100 or 160 cows, small family farms, there is some concern where this is going,” he said. “And governments, as we’ve seen, say one thing and do something else.
“It’s of concern but we also are optimistic that our system which is good for the processor, the producer and the consumer will stay intact.”
Talks on the TPP are continuing, with another set of talks scheduled for later this month in Hawaii.
– with files from Tyler Olsen/Abbotsford News