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Dairy cows feed while a farmer drives a tractor in Carrying Place, Ontario on March 24, 2020.

ALEX FILIPE/Reuters

Howard Dean is an American physician, author and former politician who served as governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003 and chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 2005 to 2009. Dean was a candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 presidential election.

As former governor of Vermont, a key dairy-producing state along the Quebec border, I have followed the debate over supply management closely over the years. As it is in Canada, dairy is one of our most important agricultural sectors and a significant driver of our state’s economy. Milk generates more in sales than any other agricultural product in Vermont.

I have always looked to your system of supply management with envy. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. lost about 5 per cent of our dairy farms every year over the past decade – more than 2,500 dairy farms in 2020 alone – far outpacing the rate of consolidation in Canada. Most of our milk in the U.S. now comes from farming operations with more than 1,000 cows. Some of the largest operations here have more than 30,000 cows. The American dairy system favours industrial farming and drives smaller farms out of business.

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Supply management ensures predictable retail prices, a fair return for farmers and a stable supply of fresh, local food.

Despite what opponents of supply management might suggest, including The Globe’s Rita Trichur, Canadians are not being gouged on price. When adjusted for the exchange rate, the average retail price of milk is only slightly higher in Canada than it is in the U.S., and retail prices for common dairy products like yogurt, cream and butter are much higher in the United States, according to Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Furthermore, there are no assurances that abolishing the system would make dairy products any less expensive.

What’s more, the dairy sectors in many countries without supply management, including in the U.S., are also subsidized by their governments in the form of tax abatements and anti-pollution grants to name two. So, in the U.S., consumers end up paying twice for dairy – once through their taxes and again at the grocery store.

Last year, while your dairy sector was realigning supply to meet demand, dairy producers here required a US$2.9-billion bailout from our government. Fast forward to 2021, when our dairy sector stands to receive an additional $3.6-billion from Congress under the proposed COVID-19 stimulus package, on top of the yearly subsidies it already receives. Supply management works to prevent this kind of volatility and instability. It can also promote sustainability by reducing excess emissions and waste arising from overproduction.

Recently, 21 organizations, including some of the biggest dairy unions in America, penned a joint letter to incoming Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Katherine Tai, nominee for U.S. trade representative. The coalition asked the Biden administration to drop its challenges of Canada’s handling of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade agreement, and follow the Canadian example here in the United States instead:

“The Biden-Harris administration must also recognize the significant economic toll that the last three decades of U.S. trade policy has taken on independent, family-scale food producers in the U.S., particularly in the dairy sector,” they wrote.

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“This is the moment for the administration to direct USDA and the USTR to change direction: instead of undermining Canada’s dairy system, they should take a page from Ottawa’s popular playbook. We call on them to work with dairy farmer organizations and Congress to design and implement dairy pricing reform and market management policies that protect small farmers, ensure fair prices, and support working families and thriving rural communities.”

I am an American supporter of supply management. American small dairy farmers are being driven out of business and receiving nothing but empty promises. We are running out of options, and we have yet to look at the most successful option in North America, just north of our border.

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