One of Canada’s top trade officials is attending meetings in Shanghai this week as the hardship continues to mount for farmers caught in a diplomatic dispute between Beijing and Ottawa.
It’s been more than four months since China barred Canadian pork and beef in what is widely seen as retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of a Chinese high-tech executive following an extradition request by the United States. Purchases of canola seed and soybeans also dried up even earlier this year and have not rebounded.
Steve Verheul, who was Canada’s lead negotiator in the recent renegotiation of NAFTA with the United States and Mexico, is in Shanghai this week for continuing talks on reforming the World Trade Organization, the department of Global Affairs said on Monday. The WTO-themed meeting is Tuesday.
The department was tight-lipped on the rest of Mr. Verheul’s schedule in China. He is the assistant deputy minister of trade policy and negotiations, he led Canada’s trade negotiations with the European Union and has a deep background in agricultural trade. Prior to joining Global Affairs, Mr. Verheul was a top trade negotiator with the federal Department of Agriculture and Agri-food.
While Mr. Verheul is in China, newly appointed Canadian ambassador to China Dominic Barton is visiting Ottawa.
Canadian agricultural producers are planning their own trip to China in the coming days to try to address the stalled trade.
Canadian business leaders and politicians are also heading to China shortly to try to flag opportunities for expanding trade. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, Goldy Hyder, president of the Business Council of Canada, and Ailish Campbell, Canada’s Chief Trade Commissioner, are among speakers at a Nov. 11 forum in Shanghai.
Peter Clark, a trade consultant, said he can’t see Mr. Verheul passing up this week’s opportunity to press his Chinese counterparts on stalled farm trade between Canada and China. “If you have somebody with his firepower and his knowledge, if the issues came up, I am sure he could sit down and engage.”
He said it’s understandable Ottawa won’t discuss whether Mr. Verheul will also talk pork, beef, canola and soybeans with the Chinese. “If they raise expectations, and we get rejected, that doesn’t do us any good,” he said.
Brian Innes, vice-president of public affairs at the Canola Council of Canada, which represents 43,000 producers, said he hopes Mr. Verheul will speak up for Canadian canola during the Shanghai talks.
“We hope our government uses every opportunity to encourage China to support rules-based trade in canola – including [at] meetings aimed at strengthening the WTO hosted by China," Mr. Innes said.
“The troubles that our canola sector is facing is because of Chinese government action.”
Sylvain Leclerc, a spokesman at Global Affairs, said: “At these meetings, Canadian officials engage with their interlocutors on a wide array of issues. Mr Verheul will take the opportunities available to him to discuss key Canada-China trade issues, including pork, beef, canola seed and soybeans.”
There has been a slight improvement in canola seed sales to China, Mr. Innes said. He said shipments to China however are still currently “less than one-quarter" of normal sales.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty facing the canola industry,” he said. “The level is far below normal and two of our largest exporters remain blocked from the [Chinese] market.”
Mr. Innes said seed prices have fallen 10 per cent, which is a significant change for farmers. Over a year, a 10-per-cent decline in prices means a loss of $1-billion in revenue, he said.
Canada’s 7,000 pork producers are still struggling to deal with the shuttering of the Chinese market. Relations between Beijing and Ottawa turned sour late last year at a time when Canadian farmers were already struggling with the turmoil in agricultural markets caused by the mid-2018 trade war between the United States and China. The China-U.S. trade war had already diverted U.S. pork into Canadian and European markets, and the Chinese ban on Canadian pork only worsened things for producers in Canada.
Pork producers sold more than $500-million of product to China in 2018 and had expected to record more than $1-billion in sales in 2019 before the June ban.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.