Graham Friesen is sitting in a comfy leather office chair in the front row of a cattle auction in rural Alberta, bidding on bulls and heifers with subtle head nods and fist shakes.
He’s a cattle broker, making him a regular fixture at sales like this one last week in Strathmore, Alta., where about 30 others have gathered for the auction or to just gossip over pancakes and coffee in the lobby.
China banned Canadian beef and pork imports two days prior, injecting confusion, frustration and anger into conversations with those in the livestock industry who say that they are, once again, coming under unjust pressure because of frayed diplomatic relationships around the globe.
“World politics is dirty,” Mr. Friesen says as cattle plod through the sale ring. “We’re losing at that game.”
This time, the agriculture sector − as well as two Canadians detained in China − is in the middle of a three-way dispute between Ottawa, Washington and Beijing that began with Canada’s arrest late last year of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. She faces accusations in the United States of breaking sanctions against Iran and is now awaiting an extradition hearing scheduled for next January.
China had already restricted canola and pork imports before it imposed a blanket ban on Canadian pork and beef last week. Beijing said it found some fake export documents and pork contaminated with a banned additive. (The RCMP is investigating the fraudulent documents and Ottawa believes the pork tainted with ractopamine may have originated outside of Canada.)
While the financial implications of China’s latest move weren’t immediately apparent − cattle prices, for example, held steady at the cattle sale in Strathmore − the emotional response is visceral and directed squarely at the federal Liberals.
“China is becoming very, very, powerful, so we need to learn how to work with them," Mr. Friesen says. “We need a change in government. We need a change in prime ministers.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Saturday that he spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Japan this past weekend about Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who are being detained on espionage-related offences, but offered reporters no details.
Mr. Trudeau said he leaned on United States President Donald Trump to press China about Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, but Mr. Trump did not mention the two Canadians when speaking to reporters after his meeting with Mr. Xi. Mr. Trump said he and Mr. Xi discussed Huawei, but not Ms. Meng, the arrested executive.
Before the product ban, China purchased $63.6-million worth of beef and veal from Canada in the first four months of 2019, just 6 per cent of this country’s total beef and veal exports. This comes as China’s taste for beef expands. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates China’s total beef consumption will hit 8.1 million tons in 2019, a 4-per-cent increase over 2018. Missing out on this export expansion opportunity stings Melissa Guenthner, cow-calf producer near Vermilion, Alta.
“There were a lot of producers that were optimistic that the market was going to keep growing," she says. "This is like having a door closed.”
Canada’s agriculture industry is accustomed to serving as a pawn in international relations. Saudi Arabia, for example, last August halted buying Canadian wheat and barley after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland publicly criticized its trading partner for imprisoning human-rights activists.
“Agriculture keeps getting browbeaten in all these trade deals," says Ms. Guenthner, who runs about 200 head of cattle.
The agriculture industry links the canola, beef and pork bans to the fight over Huawei’s executive, who is under house arrest in a multimillion-dollar mansion in Vancouver. But not all players believe Canada’s federal government is at fault and has the power to resolve its trade dispute with China.
Stewart Skinner owns part of Imani Farms, a hog operation near Listowel, Ont., and is among the forgiving. Canada, he says, is just collateral damage.
“Anybody that argues Canada can change the outcome of this heavyweight fight between China and the U.S. is being disingenuous," he says. "This boils down to the fact that the U.S. and China are wrestling for global dominance.”
And so, Mr. Skinner shrugs off politics and focuses on his operation.
“Fear can be a pretty crippling emotion when you’re farming,” he says. “Not to say that there aren’t things that concern me about this, but I think if we allow fear to take hold when there’s things that we can’t control, that’s when fear becomes debilitating.”
China is the world’s largest pork consumer and producer, but African swine fever is wiping out millions of its pigs. The USDA expects China to end 2019 with 374-million pigs, down 13 per cent from 2018, and pork production to drop by five per cent. China, the agency predicts, will have to increase pork imports by 33 per cent to cover the shortfall.
As a result, the lobby group representing domestic pork producers is optimistic China’s trade strategy will not dent Canada’s collective hog exports. China will suck up pork from other markets, and Canada will then fill shortfalls this creates in other countries, according to Gary Stordy, a spokesman for the Canadian Pork Council.
Canola farmers, however, are short on alternatives. China is Canada’s largest customer, and the Asian powerhouse purchased $2.7-billion worth of Canadian canola seeds last year. China consumes 40 per cent of Canada’s canola seed, oil and meal exports.
China’s canola restrictions will not result in a shuffle of international trade partners similar to what beef and pork producers are counting on, according to Neil Townsend, the chief market analyst at FarmLink Marketing Solutions. Canola is replaceable.
“There’s so much soybeans around that other countries can substitute,” he says. "They can buy all the soybeans they want.”
China earlier this year said it found pests in canola shipments from Canada, an assertion that domestic grain growers find absurd. But because the federal government has not been able to persuade China to open its ports, Western Canadian farmers remain frustrated.
“This cements their hatred [for the Liberals]," Mr. Townsend says. “That this is more evidence central Canada and the government just doesn’t listen to them.”
Mr. Friesen, the cattle broker bidding on animals in Strathmore, believes the federal government is indecisive and Canada’s lack of market access is a symptom of this trait.
“We need someone with more of a business aptitude," he says.
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