New Direction Promises New Hope For Ag Trade

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Amazingly, the Canadian government said there would be no trade agreement unless the Koreans allowed unfettered access to their market for Canadian beef.

Over the years I have written many times about the pitiful approach Canada has taken in international agricultural trade negotiations such as the World Trade Organization(WTO). That perspective seems to be shared by others such as European Union (EU) ag trade officials, a group who I met with about a year ago in Brussels. It tends to confirm the image of Canada as being the Boy Scout of the trade world, always ready to appease everyone at the expense of its own agricultural economic interests.

What makes that image even more sad is the spectacle of a hoard of disparate Canadian commodity group representatives and provincial government politicians and officials all flying off to WTO meetings in exotic locations just to clamour for the attention of Canadian negotiators. No wonder Canada isn’t taken seriously and is usually outside of the select group of trading countries that decide the fate of WTO discussions.

That meek ag trade approach by Canada has become so established that it has come as a complete surprise to see the Canadian government suddenly engage in an aggressive new trade policy. All the more surprising is that it involves bilateral trade discussions and WTO challenges against countries that are unfairly restricting Canadian ag exports.

That seems like a total about face by the Canadian government, being that it swore that the only way to save the Canadian export trade was through a WTO multilateral agreement. Such an agreement is treated with bemused disdain by others such as the U.S. and the EU, both of whom will not let a WTO agreement stand in the way of their own trade self-interests.

That has seen the U.S., the EU and others busily signing bilateral trade agreements with trading partners, leaving Canada out in the cold hoping some WTO agreement would be their shining knight and saviour.

To be fair, Canada does have some bilateral agreements, but they are more feel-good exercises usually initiated by the other country to get better access to Canada. The Canada-Chile agreement is such an example. It basically allows unfettered access to Canada by Chilean ag products. I am not sure what Canada gets in return.

The most notable trade discussion is with south Korea. Amazingly, the Canadian government said there would be no trade agreement unless the Koreans allowed unfettered access to their market for Canadian beef. That market uses BSE as a non-tariff trade barrier against our beef. Then to top it off the Canadian government announced it would begin a WTO trade challenge against the Koreans on their beef position. This was truly very un-Boy Scout-like behaviour for Canadian trade officials.

Earlier the Canadian government had launched a WTO challenge against American COOL regulations that restricted Canadian cattle and beef exports to the U.S. Unfortunately they reverted to their nice guy attitude when the Americans promised to moderate the COOL regulations, and Canada withdrew the challenge. Then the Americans promptly stabbed Canada in the back and put into place an ominous scenario which would see the COOL regulations becoming even more restrictive.

One can’t help but notice that the change in attitude by trade officials might have something to do with the arrival of a new International Trade Minister in the name of Stockwell Day, who recently announced the COOL challenge was off the back burner. Granted, the change in attitude began before his arrival, but one can’t help but wonder if this no-nonsense, take-charge minister didn’t help shake up the department’s attitude.

Another promising development was the establishment of a secretariat-type trade group that would promote the cattle and beef trade. This would involve both the Agriculture and Trade Departments. This is a big step forward as that responsibility was given to Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) officials before. Anything involving the CFIA and the livestock and meat business seems to result in less trade and more regulations, so a change was desperately needed.

All in all some pleasant and progressive changes in the trade arena. The only regret is that it all should have happened years ago. Notwithstanding its more common-sense trade attitude, Canada remains a slave to WTO multilateral trade discussions. Hopefully that attitude will harden and our negotiators will see that there is a real benefit to looking after our own trade self-interests first – like protecting our very successful quota boards. Time will tell, but lets pray common sense will continue to prevail.

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