Canada has fallen behind other countries, particularly the United States and the European Union, in securing a free-trade agreement with South Korea. In recent weeks, there has been considerable attention paid to the efforts made by the auto sector to stave off a deal altogether, as the industry grapples with increased competition from South Korea, particularly in the U.S. market where the majority of Canadian cars are sold and where many popular South Korean cars are now built.
We must approach such deals with an eye to the big picture and our overall national interest, especially since this will be our country's first-free trade agreement with an Asia-Pacific country. The agri-food sector is a key consideration.
For generations, my family has had the privilege to work in the Canadian food industry. We've seen a lot of change, mostly positive. As a nation, we've grown and strengthened our agri-food position in relation to the rest of the world. Thanks to the determined skill and passion of Canadians who grow and produce our food, Canada has enjoyed long-standing stature as an agri-food leader on the world stage, creating jobs and feeding people around the globe.
We cannot, however, take our leadership for granted. Canada has been facing serious threat to its agri-food position for some time now and our food sector finds itself facing significant economic challenges.
Free trade with South Korea won't remedy all of this overnight, but it will provide a catalyst for growth for our farmers and food sector. At minimum, it will help correct some of the competitive imbalances that have begun to cost us real opportunities and prosperity.
This is not wishful thinking. Since the U.S. signed its trade agreement with South Korea, Canada's agriculture and food exports to that country have plummeted from more than $1-billion to just over $300-million, a loss of more than 70 per cent over the past two years alone. Canada's total exports have fallen by just about $1-billion. Canada has lingered in the background while major global competitors including the European Union, Chile and Australia, along with the U.S., reap the benefits of trade deals with South Korea.
Canada needs to move and move fast. We must sign a Canada-South Korea free-trade agreement if we aspire to remain one of the top players in the global agri-food arena. South Korea, with about 50 million middle income consumers and only 30 per cent of its land suitable for commercial farming, is our country's fifth-largest agriculture and food export market. It is heavily dependent on food imports, with a demand that exceeds $28-billion annually. Establishing a competitive trade agreement will infuse a critical flow-through of goods between our countries that will sustain Canadian jobs, support our farmers and create vital new markets overseas. Simply, it is an opportunity that our industry and all Canadians cannot afford to lose.
Being Canadian counts. Maple Leaf Foods believes in Canada. We are headquarted in Toronto, we employ thousands of hard-working Canadians from coast-to-coast, we feed Canadian families at every meal and we are investing hundreds of millions of dollars right here in our own backyard in state-of-the-art facilities, high-skilled jobs and leading-edge technology to give our industry a fighting chance to remain a leader on the world stage.
Contrary to popular belief, the auto sector is not the largest manufacturing employer in Canada; the food processing sector is the largest with more than 250,000 direct jobs. In addition, there are over 220,000 farms across Canada, 90 per cent of which are dependent on, or supported by, export markets. Just like the auto industry, the Canadian food industry faces tremendous import competition. But sitting back while our competitors grab hold of fast growing global markets, will not serve Canada well. We must choose wisely, get behind Canada as a global food leader, and sign this important agreement.
Michael McCain is president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods