Canada is an agricultural powerhouse. We are the world's fifth-largest agricultural exporter, with more than 90 per cent of Canadian farmers competing around the world and winning. We export half of our beef, 75 per cent of our pork and 90 per cent of our canola.
Much of this trade is with the United States. They are the largest market for our agricultural products, with annual trade at an impressive $56-billion.
Our government is now renegotiating the North American free-trade agreement, our free-trade pact with the United States and Mexico. It is in our national interest to preserve the open access to the U.S. market that Canada's progressive, export-oriented farmers depend on.
But negotiations are never easy. The Trump administration is demanding Canada end its isolation of milk and dairy products in a renewed NAFTA. Isolation? That sounds very un-Canadian. But it's true.
Many decades ago, Canada erected a near 300-per-cent border tax on dairy, poultry and egg products in order to insulate 8 per cent of Canadian farmers from competition. This system – called supply management – also regressively fixes the price of these products at double the market rate. That's right – this isolationist policy means we all pay double for basics, such as milk and cheese.
Not surprisingly, the World Trade Organization has essentially banned Canada from exporting these products. But we should be exporting more food, not less. The world's population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Canadian farmers are an essential part of ensuring the world, especially the world's poorest, are fed.
Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, an army of dairy lobbyists have been using heavy protectionist rhetoric, such as the need for "food sovereignty," in an effort to maintain our massive dairy tariffs.
They are anti-free trade. These isolationist dairy farmers would rather kill NAFTA than join the rest of the Canadian farmers who successfully sell their products around the world. Dig down into their rhetoric and you will find an alarming hostility toward foreign foods. The impression is left that they don't want Canadians eating imported food – be it butter from New Zealand or chicken from New York.
Will our government choose maintaining dairy tariffs over signing a new NAFTA deal? We'll soon find out. The U.S. administration has been very explicit with its threat to withdraw from NAFTA if we do not completely open up our dairy, poultry and egg markets.
And why shouldn't the Americans make such a demand? After all, free trade is a two-way street. Canada and the United States already trade hundreds of farm products tariff-free. The Americans have a deepening $3.1-billion agrifood trade deficit with us. So why should they see milk differently than other products such as bacon, tofu or orange juice? Fair is fair.
As the NAFTA talks drag on, there is a growing anxiety amongst Canada's progressive farmers whose outlook goes beyond Canada's borders. These farmers only see downside in the sky-high dairy, poultry and egg tariffs. They view them as harming their global market access and now threatening their most important market, the United States.
Fortunately, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers take a global view and generally support free trade. They care about things such as ensuring the world's poorest are fed.
Their political support base is in urban and suburban Canada. Where voters care about unnecessarily high grocery bills. Where they value diversity on the grocery-store shelf – not some isolationist cocktail of sovereigntist economics and opposition to foreign foods.
Let's all hope Mr. Trudeau has the courage to take the progressive path by tearing down the sky-high border tax on milk. He'll be helping Canada's poorest at the grocery store and making a transformative change in Canada's approach to global food security.
Aaron Gairdner is executive director of Affordable Milk Canada and previously served as chief of staff to Canada's foreign minister, defence minister and agriculture minister.