Producers must speak up on trade

Trade negotiations. I can almost hear the pages turning as people turn to other things that seem more relevant.

For years everyone involved in agriculture has been subjected to the strong arguments on both sides of this issue. And yet, very little seems to change. For example, since 2001, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha round of negotiations has tried to break through the entrenched interests, to no avail. Many find this rather tiring.

Why should I pay attention? Do these negotiations have anything to do with what happens on my ranch or farm? Is there anything I can do about it? These are three of the most common questions I hear from producers when trade negotiations are discussed.

The fact is trade negotiations matter a great deal and we are seeing progress. Perhaps not at the WTO, but we are seeing results through bilateral deals and entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. These deals are very important to producers. We should be paying attention and we should ensure that our politicians are hearing the voices from the end of the gravel roads.

Trade is vital for the beef sector in particular because approximately 50 per cent of Canadian beef production is destined for export markets. Beef producers have always understood the significance of international trade. However, the importance of open markets was hammered home in 2003 when a case of BSE slammed our borders shut. The loss of markets was devastating to our industry and has cost the Canadian economy billions. The industry is only now recovering from the impact of that sick cow.

Open trade strengthens the industry as a whole creating opportunity for renewal and growth. This is true for both established operations and for young and beginning producers. Stable and open access to international markets not only supports the value chain but sustains jobs in rural communities and urban Canada.

Strong, stable, liberalized trade represents an opportunity for growth and rebuilding for Manitoba’s beef producers. But it is not just beef that benefits. Freer trade will generate new opportunities for our grains and oilseed farmers, our hog producers and likely new areas of production and food processing that we have not even thought about.

There is one resounding fact to remember when discussing trade. Manitoba’s economy is always better off with open borders and it always suffers when trade barriers are imposed. But not everyone understands these basic facts. Manitoba’s ranchers and farmers should all be concerned if the only voice politicians hear on this issue comes from the opponents of open borders.

Agriculture should also be concerned about being left behind — again. Producers should be concerned that Canada may reach comprehensive new agreements that fail to include significant gains for agriculture. Agriculture depends on trade. We depend on open access. We cannot afford to be left out of any new agreements.

This would not be the first time that agriculture gets left behind. The last successful round of world trade negotiations, which were completed back in 1994, largely ignored agriculture. All attempts to correct this deficiency within the WTO have failed.

Our competitors, such as Australia and the U.S. are not standing still. They are working to negotiate greater access. For example, Australia is negotiating freer trade with Japan, one of Canada’s most important agricultural markets.

The status quo is not an option for Canada. Either we are part of these new agreements and we embrace the opportunities, or we sit on the sidelines and see our markets wither because others have negotiated preferential treatment.

Trade negotiations are in the news again. Now is the time for your voice to be heard. Politicians are paying attention. So are others. There are special interests in Manitoba, and across the country, which do not recognize the potential benefits coming out of trade negotiations, such as the recently announced Trans-Pacific Partnership or the nearly completed Canada/EU trade negotiations.

Special interest groups and individuals opposed to open markets are in regular contact with your MLAs and MPs, telling our elected leaders to “stop.” Politicians must hear from more than just the special interests. They need your voice.

When you meet your politicians on their summer barbecue circuits, at your local fair or even in the coffee shop, let them know that trade matters. Ensure your voice is heard this summer.

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