Editorial: Winning at the WTO for real

WTO in Geneva, Switzerland.

Canadian livestock producers won something to crow about but little else in the latest WTO ruling to support their claim that the U.S. mandatory country-of-origin labelling rules are unfair and discriminatory.

The ruling was accompanied by the now-familiar volley of press releases from Canadian livestock and meat producers, and more sabre-rattling by federal politicians about the potential for applying punitive tariffs on imported U.S. goods.

But in reality, nothing has changed. Far from being cowed, news reports suggest the U.S. is contemplating yet another appeal, which would drag the whole affair into late 2015. Canada has been fighting this since 2008.

Yes, there are U.S. advocates — especially meat processors — for the Canadian position. But COOL also has some politically powerful proponents — domestic cattle producers and consumer groups. Whichever way it turns, the U.S. government can’t win on this one, and likewise, it can’t lose.

On the other hand, Canadian livestock producers can’t win, even when they win. The last time they “won” with a WTO ruling in their favour, the U.S. changed the rules, and made their impact on Canadian exporters even worse.

How many more “wins” can we take?

It appears the Canadian government will soon have the authority to impose $1 billion in tariffs on a long list of products we import from our bad-boy neighbour. Meats, cheeses, cherries, rice, spent fowl and prepared food containing them, wines, chocolate, maple syrup, bread, pasta, orange juice, ketchup and office furniture are on the rather lengthy list.

It must be noted that there has been no indication that there is a mechanism or any commitment to flow the proceeds from these tariffs back to the Canadian producers suffering the harm. So it’s hard to see how this in any way makes up for the estimated $1 billion in losses they’ve suffered due to COOL.

As well, it penalizes Canadian consumers as much as it hurts U.S. exporters of these goods — a point that hasn’t been lost on the consuming public.

“So the Harper government will retaliate against U.S. protectionist labelling with tariffs — which ultimately will be paid for by Canadians. That will surely bring those damn Yankees to their knees!” writes Ab Dukacz of Mississauga in a recent letter to the Globe and Mail.

He’s not the only one with opinions strong enough to put their name to a letter.

“We should have the right to know where what we consume is produced… We all need to be able to make informed decisions about what we eat. We should follow the lead of the Americans so Canadians can make those decisions, too,” Geoff Williams of Stratford, Ont. also said in the Globe.

Then there’s this one:

“I am an American, breezing my way through northeastern Canada as a tourist. I happened to see your article about disliking the country-of-origin rules.

I actually don’t like the taste of American beef; it is a product I used to enjoy but I find the heavily corn-fed beef tasteless.

“Canadian beef still has flavour. Possibly the Canada-as-country-of-origin designation could work as a banner of pride: I certainly buy Canadian bacon and Canadian maple syrup for their flavour,” offered Amy Davis, of Anaheim, California.

Granted, these folks are among the ‘uninformed’ that industry types say shouldn’t be allowed to influence policy, but sometimes it’s the innocent observations that ring most true.

In that light, we draw your attention to the recent $300-million payoff — oops, we mean compensation payment — the U.S. made to the Brazilian Cotton Institute in September to end a decade-old dispute over the detrimental effects of U.S. cotton subsidies.

The Brazilians had successfully challenged the U.S. program at the WTO and had the right to impose $830 million in sanctions against U.S. products. But Brazil agreed to suspend the penalty if the U.S. made a one-time payment into an assistance fund for Brazilian cotton farmers.

Both sides walked away from the table saying it was a “win-win” settlement.

Faced with odds of the U.S. government dumping COOL ranging somewhere between slim and none, wouldn’t it be better to make like the Brazilians and cut a deal?

Those funds could be streamed directly to producers, and because they are compensation for past harm, they should be trade neutral.

Additionally, that pool of funds could be used to develop what knowledgeable industry observers have been promoting for a long time — a Canadian-branded beef program that moves what we sell beyond a generic commodity into the realm of value added.

American consumers would still be able to see where their tasty beef is coming from, and we’re betting that would prove to be a good thing. Now that’s a win.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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