We shouldn't kid ourselves: The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was never really about Canada. It was about Washington's desire to undermine China, increasing its commercial footprint in the region and connecting with Japan.
Since the U.S. Congress gave President Barack Obama its blessing to pursue this deal this past summer, giving history's largest trade deal a momentous second wind, many Canadian economic sectors, mostly supply-managed agricultural sectors, have been deeply concerned. On a purely net basis, to be left out of a signed deal would have been tragic for Canada's agricultural economy. Some sectors, such as processing, beef and pork will obviously gain, while others, such as the dairy industry, will face serious headwinds. Nevertheless, now that we have a deal and Canada is part of it, it is time to redefine what competitiveness really means to our new Canadian agricultural landscape.
The industry reached the end of its economic relevancy years ago, and many farmers affected by the coming changes recognize this, albeit quietly. Dairy, poultry and egg producers alike should ponder their futures and work on building a new model that allows them to become more competitive. A part of that process should be an acceptance that not all will survive; we will eventually see more farms disappear.
Yet, we should not lose sight of the fact that we have also lost thousands of farms in our country while working under the supply-management paradigm. A positive reconstruction can happen only with the proper support of Ottawa and the provinces.
When Europe ended the quota system this year, several programs allowed a number of farmers to fully prepare for the open market. Some countries, such as France and Britain, were clearly ill-prepared, and Canada cannot afford to make similar mistakes. We must be prepared to give industry the time and resources to foster better streamlining during the transition.
We also need to keep in mind that our codes of practice for produce commodities are very different than those of other countries, in particular the United States. Giving access to foreign-produced commodities will require standard harmonization among trading partners, ensuring that Canadian consumer expectations of high quality are not compromised. The crucial issue of growth hormone usage in U.S. dairy, an illegal practice in Canada, is one of many examples of the need for international co-ordination.
These changes were inevitable, and a reform of the supply-management scheme was inevitable. It is yet another example of our farmers' dependence on marketing boards. For many of them, these boards have proved to be powerful mechanisms to countervail systemic menaces, protecting them for decades. But marketing boards are also psychological traps, as they can suppress innovative and competitive spirits. It is deeply unfair for Canadians to expect supply-managed farmers to be willing to compete when no incentives exist. In dairy, for example, even though many farms are technically well equipped, the cost of producing milk in Canada is one of the highest in the industrialized world. This, among other things, will need to change.
As with supply management, the policies and actions of the Canadian Wheat Board divided farmers in the West for decades. The end of the single-desk model in 2012 sparked a tsunami of positive growth. As a result, entrepreneurial farmers in the Prairies have blossomed and embraced trade, nurturing formidable partnerships with grain handlers, brokers and traders. The Prairies are also producing and processing more commodities, such as pulses and quinoa, something that never would have happened under the single-desk policy. A similar paradigmatic shift could lift currently supply-managed sectors to new competitive heights. This initial TPP deal is just the beginning. Many believe Canada will likely give greater market access in the future, so the industry needs to be prepared for this shift.
At heart, the TPP deal is nothing short of a major coup for Canada. The 12 member-state partnership includes more than 800 million affluent consumers and more than 40 per cent of the world economy, even if Europe, India and China don't sign on. Canada would been entirely isolated if it hadn't joined. We may have a trade deal with Europe, but the Americans are trying to sign a similar agreement. With all these cross-continental deals involving growing markets, Canada's economic influence would have likely eroded over time. And since agriculture is about feeding consumers, greater access to exponentially more consumers is clearly desirable.
Appropriately, this is all happening while Canadians are engaged in the process of electing a new government on Oct. 19. For the first time since 1988, trade and agriculture are finally getting the attention they deserve during an election cycle. With what is likely to be a reformed supply-management regime, this is certainly a great opportunity for Canadians to ask our leaders to shape what we have been missing for years in our country: a real vision for Canadian agri-food.
It's about time. Farmers have been vocal in defending the current supply-oriented framework, but now, since market access to foreign diary will be enhanced, any suggestion that supply management should remain untouched is strategically futile.