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Opinion: With friends like this

Canada's dairy farmers getting a bad image

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer was back in the headlines recently after a visit to an agricultural fair in Ste. Hyacinthe, Quebec, clearly intended to brand himself as a friend of Canada’s dairy farmers. This friendship may not be helpful.

Scheer’s visit follows his widely reported comments to a Dairy Farmers of Canada meeting in Saskatoon where he claimed the new Canada’s Food Guide was driven by philosophy and bias against dairy products. He went on to say that if he were elected prime minister, he would change the food guide to reflect comments from organizations such as the DFC and that he would scrap the Liberal plan to make front-of-package labels mandatory for foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.

He topped this off with a bizarre statement that “chocolate milk saved my son’s life,” because of his picky eating habits and refusal to consume any other food.

When short of column ideas, some national media commentators always fall back on their old favourite, which is how Canada’s beleaguered and cash-poor families are paying too much for milk because of the ‘dairy lobby’ of wealthy farmers protecting their excess income through supply management.

You could almost hear their keyboards clicking as soon as Scheer’s comments were reported. In the background were the keyboard clicks of new members signing up for the People’s Party of Canada led by supply management critic Maxime Bernier, who formed the new party after narrowly losing the Conservative Party leadership to Scheer last year. Bernier and those national columnists attribute that loss to Scheer receiving support from the ‘dairy lobby.’

Scheer’s latest statements have played right into their hands. “Scheer is currently demonstrating in quite spectacular fashion what it actually looks like for a Canadian political leader to be utterly beholden to a special interest group, and it’s not the so-cons (social conservatives). It’s ultra-protectionist Big Dairy,” Chris Selley wrote in the National Post.

And last week the Winnipeg Free Press was one of the national newspapers that carried an editorial cartoon showing a cow labelled “Dairy industry” and dressed in a business suit with Andrew Scheer in its breast pocket. “Got Scheer,” reads the caption.

Ouch. That’s the image seen by hundreds of thousands if not millions of Canadians to whom dairy farmers are appealing for support to maintain supply management. If DFC really has Scheer in its pocket, it needs to tell him to back off.

However, he’s just been repeating its complaint that it was shut out of consultations for the development of the new food guide. That’s correct, but so were all other industry groups. And relative to other products in the guide (also produced by farmers), there isn’t that much to complain about. The new guide recommends consuming plant-based protein foods more often, but also recommends lower-fat milk, lower-fat yogurts, lower-fat kefir and cheeses lower in fat and sodium. Unlike the old guide, it just doesn’t recommend a certain amount per day, but nor does it for anything else.

The revised guide may or may not affect Canadians’ dairy consumption, but one way or another, dairy farmers have bigger problems to worry about. The main one is erosion of their market share due to new trade agreements, but that makes protection of supply management even more important. Even if it’s a smaller share of the market, it’s better to have that than an open border with the U.S.

Dairy farmers have a legitimate case against that. They shouldn’t have to compete with the U.S. dairy system, with its overproduction, Byzantine subsidy program and mega-dairies with lower standards for welfare of its animals and their workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants.

But to make that case, dairy farmers can’t look like a bunch of overpaid fat cats who want to use political influence to overturn scientific recommendations about healthy eating. That’s the image that Andrew Scheer is projecting in his attempts to portray himself as a friend of dairy farmers. As the saying goes, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?”

John Morriss is a former editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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