The Doha round of international trade negotiations has passed its “best before” date and it would make more sense for countries to salvage the progress made during 10 years of negotiations, says Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.
“I don’t see a groundswell of support for the latest efforts to reach a wide-ranging agreement,” Ritz said at the recent annual policy conference of the Dairy Farmers of Canada.
Recent calls for a comprehensive trade deal “come from the same cheerleaders who said in 2003 we were close to a major agreement. There’s not a lot of strength in this bubble.”
Just back from a week in Europe spent meeting agriculture ministers and officials from around the world, Ritz said most of the enthusiasm for a concerted last-ditch push for a deal comes from Pascal Lamey, head of the World Trade Organization.
“I don’t see any sign the United States and the EU are moving in the direction that emerging countries say is essential for a deal,” he said.
At the same time, economic powerhouses such as China, Brazil and India have to stop hiding behind the developing country tag, he added.
While Canada is a big supporter of the WTO, there’s no use pretending there’s enough international support for a substantial agreement, said Ritz. Instead, he said, countries should adopt agreements negotiators have struck on numerous technical changes to the WTO rules, rather than allow those efforts to go to waste.
He also took aim at free market dreamers and business page editorialists who want Canada to abandon its supply management system for dairy and poultry products.
“The Harper government has never wavered in its commitment to supply management,” he said. Critics who compare Canadian and American food prices to justify their attacks on the boards “always compare apples to oranges, picking the loss leader price in the U.S. and the premium price in Canada,” he said.
“Supply management gives us the benefit of stable production without requiring all the subsidies that one sees in other countries.”
RESTATE THE MERITS
However, he suggested dairy and poultry producers need “to re-educate the public about merits of supply management” given a recent spate of attacks from poverty groups and a former spokesman for the Union des Producteurs Agricoles, as well as in the business pages of big newspapers.
“Farmers certainly have a lot more credibility with the public than politicians do,” said Ritz.
“Farm leaders have to explain the benefits that supply-managed farms and the companies that process their products bring to the country. We face some bumps in the road but they continue to work for the good of the country.”
The Canada-Europe Trade Agreement under negotiation could lead to some specialty agriculture products having to change their name, he admitted.
“But the Europeans know we’re as committed to supply management as they are geographical indicators.”
Geographical indicators are brand names for products from a specific region, such as Parma ham from Italy.
Gilles Gauthier, Canada’s chief agriculture trade negotiator, agreed that given the divisions among countries, “it’s difficult to see how these negotiations can be completed.”
The current proposed WTO negotiating text for agriculture products offers a limited possibility to designate marketing boards as sensitive products to maintain their existing tariff protection against cheap imports.
However, marketing boards are a small matter compared to disagreements over safeguard provisions for developing countries, new traffic rates and subsidy levels in the U.S. and Europe, corn subsidies, and other unresolved issues, he said.
“There’re several layers of challenges in the negotiations before we get to sensitive products.”