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Ritz says expanding trade key priority

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz wants to focus on finding more customers for Canadian farm and food products and less on the future of Prairie barley marketing.

Speaking to reporters in mid-January after official visits to India and Hong Kong, the minister said he’s looking forward to trips to the Middle East, Russia, Mexico and China when Parliament isn’t in session in the coming months. “We will also keep at the political problems in Japan and Korea over their barriers to Canadian beef. There’s a tremendous opportunity in China.”

In India, the minister’s mission opened doors for increased sales of pork, pulses and canola while Hong Kong agreed to a phased-in return of many Canadian beef products. “We’ve got real results and we want to keep maximizing trade opportunities for Canadian farmers and companies in these uncertain times. They accept that we’re up to international animal health standards.”

In India alone, there’s an opportunity to expand pulse and canola sales by $500 million if fumigation requirements and related issues can be resolved, he said. “There’s a lot of room to grow for Canadian products.” India already buys $340 million a year worth of Canadian pulses. It is also interested in expanding its pig herds using Canadian genetics.

The Hong Kong market was lost to Canadian beef after the discovery of BSE in 2003. By the end of the year, most Canadian products should be back on shelves in the Asian city.

As for promised legislation to allow western farmers to sell barley on their own, Ritz said it isn’t a priority in the new Parliament. “I will keep my powder dry on that issue. I don’t see legislation about it on the horizon.”

The three opposition parties have vowed to fight changes to the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly. Ritz introduced legislation in the last Parliament but it was never debated and died when Parliament was prorogued for the October election. It is unlikely to be reintroduced, government officials say.

Ritz said the Hong Kong agreement was a breakthrough deal and could increase Canadian beef exports by $26 million annually. Brad Wildeman, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, thinks it may take a year or two for the full effect of the deal to be felt among cattle producers. It, combined with revisions to the American country-of-origin labelling law, brightens his industry’s financial prospects considerably.

The Canadian Pork Council has set up a group to work out details with potential Indian customers, the minister added. Indian officials said the government would consider lower tariffs for Canadian canola.

Ritz said that it’s important for commodity groups to follow up his visits with concrete proposals on expanding sales.

He noted that Canada now ships $340 million a year worth of pulses to India and the sales could grow once fumigation regulations are worked out.

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