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No end in sight for supply management working groups

The slow pace of progress is due to the complexity of the issues at hand, say industry insiders

Talks on how supply-managed commodities can adjust to expanded import access to Canada under recent trade deals are proceeding slowly but industry isn’t worried just yet.

Back on Oct. 29, the federal government announced Agriculture Canada would create three working groups to help the dairy and poultry sectors. By early February there had been a handful of meetings between federal officials and representatives of farm and processor groups and more are scheduled. So far, industry spokespersons say nothing concrete about what the government might do has emerged.

Two groups involve Dairy Farmers of Canada and Dairy Processors Association of Canada while the other one is meeting with the poultry sector.

One dairy group is charged with developing “mitigation strategies to fully and fairly support farmers and processors to help them adjust” to the new NAFTA agreement as well as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

The other group “will establish a plan for a future vision to ensure the dairy industry can innovate, grow and remain an important source of jobs and growth for future generations,” Agriculture Canada said.

The poultry group “will focus on both mitigation strategies to fully and fairly support farmers and processors and long-term goals for the sector.”

While the CPTPP has come into effect, the new NAFTA has yet to be approved by Parliament or Congress. That has taken the pressure off the government for a quick solution.

“There’s a lot to get through,” an industry spokesperson said speaking off the record. “There’s a lot of technical work to do. I’m not sure if we could move much faster. There’s no panic on the industry side. What we’re doing is a lot more than fact-finding and there’s no solution in sight.”

The industry had hoped to have a clearer vision by the end of January what the government might be prepared to do.

Even without a surge in imported dairy and poultry products, farmers are feeling a rising cost pressure on their operations and producers in supply management are not eligible for coverage under the farm support programs of the Canadian Agriculture Partnership.

The impact of the new NAFTA on the dairy sector is so contentious that Dairy Farmers of Canada organized a closed-door conference in Ottawa in early February to consider the state of the industry. A spokesperson said there was no discussion about the working group process because the subjects under examination are confidential.

Not surprisingly with the farmers in town, the government was challenged in Question period to explain how it would help the farmers

Answering Quebec NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the working groups will “help farmers and processors adjust to the new NAFTA, to adjust to the Trans-Pacific Partnership… We will always help farmers and workers across the country.”

While Brosseau asked when the promised compensation for lost market share would be provided, Trudeau offered no further details.

The day before, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay responded to B.C. NDP Alistair MacGregor by saying the working groups will “make sure that the information came from the supply sector up to the government.”

MacGregor said that DFC has estimated that in time its members will lose 18 per cent or at least $1.3 billion in sales to the domestic market to imports. Farmers want to know when they will see the compensation promised by the government.

The Trump administration has formally notified Congress of the trade policy changes the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement would entail but no one foresees quick approval for it.

The notification said the deal will set tariff-rate quotas for agricultural products from Canada, including dairy and sugar.

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