It was no surprise to learn last week that our federal minister of agriculture has racked up $271,000 in travel expenses since March 2011, the most of anyone in the federal cabinet.
But unlike some of his colleagues, whose expense accounts have raised eyebrows among Canadians and howls of protest from opposition critics, we expect few will find fault with Ritz’s jet setting. In fact, his office was quick to issue a list of comments filled with glowing praise from the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance (CAFTA), the Canadian Pork Council, Canadian Seed Trade Association, and the cattle producers and feeders associations for his efforts to improve Canada’s bilateral trade in farm products after a CBC report publicizing the spending.
From Morocco to Kazakhstan to China, South Korea to Japan, Ritz has been there in recent months backed with the full support of the export commodity organizations.
That’s fair enough. International trade is Canada’s bread and butter. And in the absence of any real progress towards multilateral trade deals through the World Trade Organization after more than a decade of trying, negotiating bilateral trade relationships has become increasingly important. It’s not something easily done via Skype or over the phone.
Agricultural groups, about 50 in all, were out in full force at media events the federal government sponsored last week to promote a new trade deal with the European Union. The European market contains more than 500 million consumers, which makes it significantly larger than the U.S. Yet Canada’s trade with the union is currently only one-tenth of the U.S. value.
It’s believed that a European deal could boost overall trade with the EU by 20 per cent, adding $12 billion to the Canadian economy. It is not known how much of that would come to agriculture and it is not yet known what implications this deal might have for Canada’s domestically focused industries.
Given our experiences over the past decade with border closings due to disease, protectionist legislation and economic downturns, it is a good idea to diversify our market base.
But in our pursuit of foreign markets are we allowing markets closer to home to slip from our grasp?
The Manitoba government launched a “buy local” initiative last week in conjunction with Safeway. Locally produced and processed foods will now be flagged in Safeway stores so people have an easier time finding them.
This voluntary labelling and display program is a far cry from the COOL initiative in the U.S., which is a law that requires processors to identify the origins of the meat on packages. This is about giving consumers choice, rather than taking it away. The effect of the U.S. COOL is to discourage processors from using foreign ingredients because of the extra labelling costs.
Retailers don’t get involved in something like the Manitoba initiative on a whim. Safeway has obviously determined that a proportion of its market demographic will find value in locally produced foods. It may also be looking for ways to bring the folks it’s losing to farmers’ markets every summer back through its doors. Other stores will likely follow.
If consumers buy into this, the economic spinoffs to farmers and the local economies could be every bit as significant as the recent gains Canada has made in export trade.
Although Canada is one of the world’s largest agri-food exporters, it is increasingly turning domestic markets over to imports.
As noted by the Hellman’s online Eat Real, Eat Local campaign, this country imports 53 per cent of its vegetables and 98 per cent of its fruit — not because we can’t produce enough, but because imports are cheaper. Those low prices come at a cost. We routinely export cattle and wheat only to buy back beef and pasta.
Various studies have identified several core benefits from supporting local food systems, starting with the economy. Local food systems keep money circulating and that creates jobs. Producers selling direct see a 40 to 80 per cent higher return over conventional marketing.
One Alberta study estimated that if 25 per cent of Edmonton residents shifted 40 per cent of their food dollars to local food purchases, multiplier effect would bring the economic impact to over $2 billion. Multiply that over major centres in Canada. Local food systems can also be better for the environment, although not always. They also help bridge the urban-rural divide.
Ensuring Canadian markets are served first can create a more robust industry, better able to tackle those international markets with gusto.