As the debate over the fate of the Canadian Wheat Board was coming to a head a few years back, one of the key points repeatedly raised was how Canada’s quality assurance system gave it a leg up.
Having a centralized sales desk meant there was an entity with a rational reason for maintaining and promoting Canada’s reputation for quality, and doing research work to further it, CWB proponents claimed.
If the marketing system changed, they asserted, that justification would disappear. No private company would be willing to make investments their competitors would then turn around and capitalize on.
Those advocating for an open market downplayed those concerns and pointed out there were a number of ways to tackle these issues.
The Canadian Grain Commission, for example, maintains its role as Canada’s quality assurance ‘enforcer’ setting grades, inspecting cargoes and settling any disputes.
Entities such as Cigi could continue on, they pointed out, doing the market development and promotion work necessary to further their industry.
They also noted there were successful examples of a sector putting aside its differences and funding ‘pre-competitive’ research, development and advocacy that benefited all. In particular they pointed to the Canola Council of Canada as proof of this approach.
In the intervening years a lot has happened, and both world views have, at times, been challenged.
Canadian wheat exports have risen, not fallen, though likely big crops had as much to do with that as any internal fiddling with the commodity’s marketing system.
Quality challenges have arisen, but it’s far from clear that they were in any way linked to the marketing system.
In early December of 2014, just over two years after the end of the CWB’s monopoly, Reuters wire service reporter Rod Nickel reported that Canadian wheat exporters were “dogged by quality complaints.”
Problems included underweight shipments, lower-than-expected protein content and gluten strength in the wheat, and even the occasional mixture of wheat with other agricultural products, he noted.
The issue that seemed to alarm the market most was the lower protein content and gluten strength, as that had long been a key claim of the Canadian wheat ‘brand.’
But it appears the problem began at the farm level, with farmers making choices based on agronomy and yield, selecting productive varieties that had protein levels on the lower side. Individually it wouldn’t matter much, but cumulatively it added up to a problem.
It’s worth noting a similar situation has emerged with western Canadian soybeans, as farmers select for early-maturing genetics, resulting in lower protein levels in the seed than many would like to see. Last spring a Malaysian soybean buyer speaking at the Canadian Global Crops Symposium in Winnipeg warned farmers they were growing a product that might not find a market.
It’s very likely that the same issue surrounding wheat protein would have emerged under the CWB marketing system, and the remedy has come from the Canadian Grain Commission’s actions, creating a new class and moving wheat varieties among classes.
On the other hand, the Canola Council of Canada has experienced some challenges of its own lately, which raises the point that these umbrella groups are voluntary organizations.
This past winter one of its largest members, Richardson International, pulled out, citing a need for greater efficiency and a renewal of the organization’s priorities.
In some ways the canola council is victim of its own success, likely leading some to wonder what its role is now, in a mature sector. The much newer Cereals Canada is still a work in progress and few would doubt its role in ensuring continuity in the evolving wheat sector.
Now some are wondering if Brand Canada is in trouble, as you can read in the front page story of our Sept. 27 issue by our Allan Dawson.
While it’s clear there have been some challenges, it would probably be overstating the case to say it’s reached crisis proportions yet.
Our major new competitors, especially in the Black Sea region, remain fixated mainly on volume and price, largely bypassing quality.
Canada still has a rigorous quality assurance system, with an independent government agency overseeing it.
The nation continues to produce quality wheat that’s sought around the world for bread making, at times being added to that lower-quality Black Sea wheat to displace other competitors.
But that’s not to say it’s not worthwhile to have this discussion as an industry. By staying on top of these sorts of concerns, the sector will protect its own interests and maintain its global status.
Six years on from the demise of the single sales desk, it hasn’t been the end of the world, but it would be worthwhile assessing the state of the union.