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Opinion: The next trade election

Now is the time to push politicians on developing a new approach for a new era

There is a federal election coming this October.

Now is the time for farmers to push for policies that will allow agriculture to deliver economic growth.

Agriculture is a driver of the Canadian economy. But our jobs are spread out across Canada. So we don’t see headlines about thousands of jobs being lost because of agriculture trade disputes. But that is exactly what is at risk.

The last 20 years have seen a push for reduced tariffs and increased market access through broad trade agreements. Agricultural trade liberalization has been successful for Canada.

Much of agriculture’s steady economic growth has been fuelled by increased trading opportunities. A growing agricultural economy has generated new jobs in every region of Canada. All this is under threat from protectionist policies.

What is the economic impact of growing world protectionism?

Italy was once the largest market for Canadian durum. But Italy has adopted protectionist country-of-origin labelling requirements that reduced our exports by about 60 per cent.

India was once our leading export market for pulse crops like lentils and peas. Non-tariff and tariff trade barriers have slashed these opportunities.

China, a market that has taken over four million tonnes of Canadian canola over the last several years, has effectively closed its doors.

Tenders for barley purchases from Saudi Arabia continue to specify any origin but Canada. Phytosanitary issues with Peru threaten over one million tonnes of wheat exports. Vietnamese concerns over weed seeds have closed that market.

The world has changed and we need to adjust our trade policies.

We need our political parties to present a comprehensive approach to protecting our trading interests. A start would be a basic acknowledgment that a new systematic approach is required to counter the new world of protectionism. We need to do more than sign trade agreements, we need to place a priority on making sure trade agreements actually work.

Canada has been reluctant to call out our trading partners for their protectionist policies. For example, the value chain continues to call for WTO challenge of Italy’s country-of-origin labelling provisions. China is now a full member of the WTO. Is either country living up to their trade obligations?

We also need political parties to articulate clear policies that will facilitate market diversification. This does not mean that governments should plan to hire a sales force to sell wheat or lentils or canola. Government’s job is to create an international regulatory environment that will minimize commercial risks.

What can government do to minimize risks? Expanding the scientific and regulatory knowledge in our embassies and high commissions is a good way to start. It is important to have scientific expertise in country to quickly respond to phytosanitary and regulatory issues before they develop into a crisis.

Government also needs to develop a comprehensive approach to mitigating potential non-tariff trade barriers before they arise. This will require a significant policy pivot.

Unlike some of our competitors, Canada does not have a systematic approach to building the science-based regulatory capacity of our trading partners. This needs to change.

This is especially true as our marketing efforts continue to diversify exports into countries with less developed regulatory systems.

What does this have to do with the coming election? Farmers need to be challenging candidates and their parties to outline their plan to protect agriculture growth, investment and jobs. Here are three questions that every candidate should face in the upcoming campaign:

  • What is your party’s comprehensive plan to deal with non-tariff trade barriers?
  • Will your party use our existing trade agreements to systematically challenge them?
  • Will your party commit new resources to proactively mitigating non-tariff trade barriers?

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