Local farming groups have expressed relief as a landmark trade deal between Canada, the United States and 10 other Pacific Rim countries appears to have left the current supply management system in place.
The Fraser Valley is home to the majority of British Columbia’s dairy, poultry and egg farms, and prior to the announcement Monday morning of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), producers had voiced concerns that it would do away with the supply management system, which limits access to the country’s dairy and poultry markets.
But Trade Minister and Abbotsford MP Ed Fast said Monday the agreement will protect the country’s poultry and dairy farmers from international competition. And farmers’ representatives in the Fraser Valley say there has been relief as details of the agreement come out.
“On supply management we have been successful on protecting the three key pillars of supply management, being production controls, price controls and import controls,” Fast said. “We do believe the outcome is one that very much reflects Canada’s long-term interests and will provide the supply-managed sector with a bright future.”
Canada will allow some imports under the deal, but they will be limited to a fraction of the country’s total production. The TPP will allow imports comprising about 3.25 per cent of dairy production, 2.3 per cent of egg production, 2.1 per cent of chicken production and two per cent of turkey production.
Farmers will also receive some $4.3 billion over 15 years in income and quota guarantees from the federal government, and there will also be a $450 million program to improve processing facilities.
Ray Nickel, with the BC Poultry Association, suggested the deal was as good as farmers could hope for, even if it could pose a challenge.
“Obviously, nobody in my business welcomes the fact that there’s going to be more access without any conditions,” he said. “Anytime there’s increased access, it puts pressure on our prices.”
Beyond that, Nickel called the agreement, “a good deal for all involved,” and said he was impressed with the ability of the government to maintain supply management.
Dwight Yochim, the executive director of the Abbotsford-based BC Egg Marketing Board, said the deal “is almost a sigh of relief because it could have been a lot worse.”
“At the end of the day, for egg farmers in B.C., I think we might be able to weather this and come out the other side without a significant impact.”
A press release issued Monday by the BC Dairy Association suggested ambivalence on the part of producers.
“While [we] advocated for no additional access to the Canadian dairy market, we respect that additional access was a favourable outcome under the circumstances,” the association said.
Its president, Dave Taylor, said, “It’s a step backwards to lose market share and ultimately lose cows from our system. There is, however, less anxiety today knowing that supply management is going to be sustainable for future generations – for that, we are grateful.”
However, Garry Fehr, the director of UFV’s Agriculture Centre of Excellence, said the deal will force farms to modernize to keep up with global competitors. While some have already taken those steps, newer, less-established farms may find themselves playing catch-up.
“Those larger dairy farms that have already invested will probably be fine. It’s the smaller farms that don’t have the capital, especially the newer entrants, that are really going to struggle because they don’t have the cash. They bought into a system that they thought was stable, and now they don’t know what they’re dealing with and they don’t necessarily have the capital to invest.”
Fehr said the small quotas are unlikely to significantly affect prices, but that the government program for farmers – most of which is meant to make up for financial losses – will cost taxpayers.
The hope among farmers, Fehr said, will be that Canada can increase its exports to other TPP countries.
“I think that’s the fear in that we don’t know if that’s the first bit of erosion in the supply management system: Is it indicative of what’s coming, or will we sit here for 10 years and re-negotiate again?”
The agreement must still be ratified by Parliament, and the trade pact may become a major issue in the federal election as voters head to the polls in less than two weeks.
The Conservatives have trumpeted their record on free-trade deals; the Liberals say they generally support free trade, but will look at the details of the agreement; and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has recently suggested he may not back the agreement if his party controls Parliament. And Green Party leader Elizabeth May accused the government of “double-crossing” farmers.
Among Fast’s opponents in the Abbotsford riding, NDP candidate Jen Martel said, “I’m deeply concerned that concessions will be made that will have a devastating impact on local farmers and any supply-managed industries in agriculture.”
Green candidate Stephen Fowler said, “The TPP has been negotiated in a closed, secretive and undemocratic manner.”
Liberal Peter Njenga has not returned interview requests.
The TPP also came up several times during an all-candidates forum held Thursday night – before the agreement was signed – for those running in the newly created Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon riding.
Conservative Candidate Brad Vis described the TPP as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for Canada.
“We can’t solely rely on one major trading partner … We need to reach out and we need to be full participants in the global economy,” Vis said.
Green Candidate Arthur Green said his party is not against international trade, but is against agreements that are “one-sided for other countries.”
“Canada always ends up with the short end of the stick … Selling our resources off at rock-bottom prices and not leaving anything for future generations is a travesty, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Liberal Jati Sidhu, who was himself a farmer for 35 years, said he understood the importance of trade, but said all stakeholders should have had a voice in the negotiations before anything was signed.
– with files from Vikki Hopes