Manitoba farm leaders watching U.S. closely

POLITICS | Trade, international relations and the tone of the conversation all of interest

POLITICS | Trade, international relations and the tone of the conversation all of interest

Manitoba’s agriculture sector is taking a wait-and-see approach to the prospect of a Biden presidency in the U.S.

Bill Campbell, president of the Keystone Agricultural Producers, said the key thing he’ll be looking for is clarity on trade, when speaking to the Co-operator the week after the vote.

“Trade will be the primary interest of Manitoba farmers,” Campbell said. “In particular, how the interactions between the U.S. and China all play out.”

Cam Dahl, chief strategy officer of Cereals Canada, echoed the sentiment, saying the tone of trade discussions between those two titans has, in recent years, been tense.

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“Is that relationship going to change away from that really antagonistic trade environment?” he wondered.

Dahl says that’s all part of a larger question — will the world turn back towards a rules-based system of open trade? In particular he says he’ll be watching the way the U.S. approaches multilateral organizations such as the World Trade Organization. For the past several years — predating even the Trump presidency — the U.S. has stymied the appointment of appellate judges who hear trade complaints, something that’s rendered the organization toothless in its ability to mediate disputes.

“If that changes, that would be of significant benefit,” Dahl said.

Ryan Cardwell, an agriculture economics professor at the University of Manitoba, says he’s not expecting any radical shifts in the short term. For example, he’s not expecting the same sort of flurry of executive orders that marked the start of the Trump presidency.

“Expect a Biden administration to be more predictable,” he said. “The Trump administration, and Trump in particular, made a lot of unexpected and wild statements — they were going to shut the border down or reinstate COOL (country-of-origin labelling).

“Wild claims create uncertainty, and when there’s uncertainty, you don’t see investments to expand plants and supply chains. If you’re making a decision to expand, boring is a good thing.”

Campbell said he’s also watching to see if the pundits’ predictions that a Democrat president will be a more protectionist president prove out over time.

“I do agree the tone of the message will change,” Campbell said. “The ability to even have some of the necessary conversations might be a lot more easy.”

Carson Callum, executive director of the Manitoba Beef Producers, said that regardless the ultimate outcome of the election and related legal wrangling, his members will remain interested in the same key points.

With the largest two-way trade in beef in the world between the two nations, continuity of trade is the key issue.

Continued economic growth and the future of the WTO also remain of particular importance to the sector, he said.

“These are all of particular importance, regardless of how the outcome is confirmed,” Callum said. “It’s a lot of the same pieces that we’ll continue to push for.”

Cardwell says any change is going to be a slower process than many might think, with change measured in years, rather than months or even a single year.

“Multilateral negotiations take years, no matter who’s in charge, and the WTO appellate body is a year, or even years, away,” he said.

But should they be negotiated, there’s the potential some spillover effects from trade disputes could be wound down.

“There’s the potential for some of these aid programs to U.S. farmers to be curtailed,” Cardwell said. “They’ve been sold as a response to these trade disputes.”

Cereals Canada’s Dahl agreed that it’s going to take some time to sort out the true impact.

“We haven’t seen the cabinet appointments, we haven’t seen the actual policy positions,” Dahl said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the positions on the campaign trail don’t always translate into the positions when actually governing.”

In the meantime Manitoba farmers have to be patient, Campbell said, and be ready to adapt to whatever new environment they find themselves.

“We’ll see the trade environment, the trade agreements, and how they interact with different countries along the way,” Campbell said. “We’ll see the U.S. Farm Bill, who they appoint as their agriculture representatives and who looks after which departments.

But in the end it’s likely the environment will at the least be more predictable.

“That reduction in chaos and uncertainty is invaluable; that we could see in short order,” Cardwell said.

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Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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