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Trade touted as cattle industry’s salvation

“We’ve always made our living in the marketplace.”

– brad wildeman, cca

Increased trade is the solution to the Canadian cattle industry’s economic woes, Manitoba cattle producers were told last week.

The Manitoba Cattle Producers Association annual meet ing heard a rous ing endorsement of global trade and free enterprise as an answer to the difficulties currently facing the industry.

Heading the charge was Brad Wi ldeman, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president, who said the most important thing for beef producers right now is to open up international markets.

For that reason, a World Trade Organization agreement is “the single most important agreement that can happen in our lifetime,” he said.

Wildeman made his comments two days before World Trade Organization director general Pascal Lamy decided against calling ministers to Geneva this month to seek a breakthrough in the WTO’s Doha round.

That means there will be no outline Doha deal by the end of this year, promising an uncertain period for international trade while the world experiences its worst economic crisis in a generation.

Wildeman said Canada has no choice but to export since it produces much more beef than it can consume domestically.

Canada in 2009 is expected to produce over 1.7 million tonnes of beef, half of which must be exported.

The United States is by far Canada’s biggest customer, receiving over 90 per cent of combined beef and live cattle exports.

Wildeman said Canada is the world’s largest beef and cattle exporter and the fourth most trade-dependent nation on Earth.

For that reason, he called it “an absolute travesty” that Canada at the WTO insists on greater market access for some commodities while demanding import restrictions for others, such as dairy and poultry.

A panel discussion on trade later in the day reserved the harshest criticism for U. S. country-of-origin meat labelling legislation.

Charlie Gracey, representing the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency, described COOL as “a real assault on the survivability of our industry in Canada.”

Gracey called COOL the most damaging thing for trade since the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act in the U. S. That measure raised U. S. tariffs on imported goods to record levels and contributed to the Great Depression.

Being stuck with COOL makes it all the more important for Canada to develop new beef markets overseas and to reopen existing ones closed since BSE, the panel was told.

That includes Japan, which admits only limited volumes of Canadian beef, and South Korea, which imports none at all.

Wildeman bristled during a question period when Darren Qualman, National Farmers Union pol icy director and Fred Tait, a former NFU vice-president, questioned the value of trade to farmers.

Qualman quoted Statistics Canada figures showing that net farm income has declined while agri-food exports have soared.

The NFU recently published a study blaming free trade and corporate concentration for cattle producers’ declining market receipts.

Wildeman said he would rather take his chances in a free market than rely on import controls, as supply management does. “We’ve always made our living in the marketplace.”

Gracey said cattle producers can help themselves by implementing age verification, traceability and on-farm food safety to give Canadian beef stronger credibility abroad.

“The question isn’t what can we do? The question is why the hell aren’t we doing it?”

But Gracey was criticized himself for belonging to ALMA, part of a $356 million Alberta government strategy to boost the province’s livestock industry.

Brian Sterling of Tilston accused Alberta of “violating 150 years of tradition” by unfairly competing against other provinces on beef product and market development.

Producers outside Alberta resent the province’s go-it-alone approach and fear it could trigger trade retaliation.

Gracey acknowledged the concerns. But he suggested ALMA could expand to become a national program instead of just a provincial one.

(With files from Reuters)

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