Editorial: More to TPP than milk and eggs

The Trans-Pacific Partnership and what a deal could mean for Canadian producers

dairy cow

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement now under negotiation involves 12 of the world’s largest economies, and has been described as “NAFTA on steroids.” What’s holding it up? Canadian dairy farmers.

Or so you’d think about reading some of the national and international media coverage. Some of it made us think of the coverage of the Crow debate. As it went on (seemingly forever), journalists would dredge up phrases from old stories and start new ones about the “century-old” (it wasn’t) Crow Rate which “was promised in perpetuity” (it wasn’t) and how changing it would “reduce the price of land on the Prairies” (it didn’t).

So while they weren’t accurate, these phrases were repeated so often that they became accepted wisdom.

Similarly, as in reports from last week’s G-20 agriculture ministers’ meeting in Turkey, there were references to Canada’s reluctance to drop supply management because of the “powerful dairy lobby.”

The Dairy Farmers of Canada is pretty smart all right, but let’s think this through. There are about 12,000 dairy farms in Canada, so let’s assume each has an average of mom, dad and one child of voting age. That’s 36,000 votes spread across dozens of constituencies across the country. Let’s further assume the Conservatives drop supply management and every one of those voters decides to vote Liberal or NDP in protest. In that unlikely event, in how many constituencies would that make a difference?

Pressure to change supply management came last week from the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance, which issued an opinion piece saying “the time is now” to get a deal. It didn’t mention the words “supply management,” but the unspoken undercurrent is that Canada has to drop it or there will be no deal, and Prairie grain and livestock producers will lose out.

That must have the Conservatives quaking in their boots — if we don’t get into the TPP, all the farmers on the Prairies are going to vote Liberal or NDP in protest. Given the NDP victory in Alberta, perhaps anything is possible, but this doesn’t seem too likely.

The focus on supply management diverts attention from the fact that there are other contentious issues in the TPP. Patent protection on drugs is one, especially for Canadian provinces trying to minimize their health-care bills. And of some 61,000 words in the Wikipedia entry on the TPP, the words “supply management” appear once. “Intellectual property” appears 20 times. Many countries are at odds with the U.S. on intellectual property and copyright law. And according to WikiLeaks, the accord would grant the power to global corporations to sue governments in tribunals organized by the World Bank or the United Nations to obtain taxpayer compensation for loss of expected future profits due to government actions. That information had to come from WikiLeaks, because the text of the deal is secret.

So there are certainly some powerful lobbies in the TPP negotiations, such as U.S. entertainment and Internet corporations and multinational drug companies. It’s odd that the “powerful dairy lobby” in Canada seems to get more ink than they do. Or than the much more powerful dairy lobby in the U.S., which wants access to the Canadian market.

There lies the real but so far mostly unspoken political issue in Canada. Much of the U.S. “dairy shed” in the northern U.S. is within a few hours’ semi-trailer ride to most of the Canadian population in Ontario and Quebec. Manitoba’s comparatively small requirement could probably be supplied from Minnesota.

So if supply management disappears and the border opens, U.S. milk would flood across the border unless Canada matched the U.S. dairy support program. Canadian producers would also be under pressure to adopt the same production model as some of the U.S. mega-operations, many of which have questionable labour and animal welfare practices. Canadian consumers would begin to see sharp fluctuations in prices, which they don’t now. Nothing strikes more fear into the heart of a politician than the prospect of a news report with a young mother complaining about the high price of milk.

So while supply management, especially for dairy, may be a sticking point in the TPP, it isn’t the only one, and it involves more than farmers. Other than Mexico, Canada is the only TPP country that shares a border with the U.S. If this deal is in fact “NAFTA on steroids,” it’s likely that there are more issues on the table than milk and eggs.

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