Push the politicians on trade

There is a federal election coming this October. Members of Parliament and candidates are canvassing their constituents at barbecues, golf tournaments and, eventually, all-candidate debates.

Now is the time for farmers to push for policies that will allow agriculture to deliver economic growth.

Agriculture is a driver of the Canadian economy. Agriculture and Agri-Food give more jobs to Canadians than the auto and aerospace industries combined. But our jobs are spread out across Canada and not concentrated in big centres.

So we don’t see headlines about thousands of jobs being lost because of agriculture trade disputes. But that is exactly what is at risk.

The past 20 years have seen a push for reduced tariffs and increased market access through broad trade agreements. Agricultural trade liberalization has been successful for Canada.

During the past 20 years, earnings from farming have been on a steady upward trend. In fact, farming cash receipts in 2018 were more than double the level in 1999. Much of agriculture’s steady economic growth has been fuelled by increased trading opportunities. That growth has spawned investment in Canadian infrastructure.

All this is under threat from protectionist policies and we need to quickly see new policy approaches and new partnerships between agriculture and governments.

What is the economic impact of growing world protectionism? Italy was once the largest market for Canadian durum, the wheat used to make pasta.

But Italy has adopted protectionist country of origin labelling requirements that have reduced our durum exports by about 60 per cent. This has happened after the agricultural provisions of the Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement with Europe was negotiated.

India was once our leading export market for pulse crops like lentils and peas. Non-tariff and tariff trade barriers have slashed these export opportunities.

We need our political parties to present a comprehensive approach to protecting our trading interests.

We need to do more than sign trade agreements. We need to place a priority on making sure trade agreements actually work. Canada has been reluctant to call out our trading partners for their protectionist policies.

We also need political parties to articulate clear policies that will facilitate market diversification.

Expanding the scientific and regulatory knowledge in our embassies and high commissions is a good way to start. It is important to have scientific expertise in-country to quickly respond to phytosanitary and regulatory issues before they develop into a crisis.

The most recent budget allocated additional funds to the Trade Commissioner Service and this is a good first step.

Government also needs to develop a comprehensive approach to mitigating potential non-tariff trade barriers before they arise. This will require a significant policy pivot.

What does this have to do with the coming election? Farmers need to be challenging candidates and their parties to outline their plan to protect agriculture growth, investment and jobs.

Here are three questions that every candidate should face in the upcoming campaign:

1. What is your party’s comprehensive plan to deal with non-tariff trade barriers facing agriculture?

2. Will your party use our existing trade agreement to systematically challenge non-tariff trade barriers?

3. Will your party commit new resources to proactively mitigating non-tariff trade barriers before they arise?

Cam Dahl is president of the not-for-profit group Cereals Canada.

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