Most are clue­less about sup­ply man­age­ment

We as­sume it is good for us and the econ­omy, with­out fully un­der­stand­ing the ra­tio­nale

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - SYL­VAIN CHARLEBOIS

Some have claimed that sup­ply man­age­ment was es­tab­lished as a so­cial con­tract be­tween farm­ers and con­sumers. Our heav­ily-crit­i­cized quota regime to sup­port dairy, egg, and poul­try in­dus­tries in Canada was set up decades ago to pro­tect strate­gic agri­cul­tural sec­tors by im­ple­ment­ing high tar­iffs on im­ports. Farm­ers pro­duce what we need and im­port lit­tle from abroad — sim­ple. There is noth­ing like it in the North­ern Hemi­sphere — at least not any­more, since Europe got rid of its sys­tem back in 2015. A text­book case for food sovereignty. But if there in­deed ever was a so­cial con­tract, it may need to be re­drafted.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent An­gus Reid poll, barely 4 per cent of Cana­di­ans can ad­e­quately de­scribe what sup­ply man­age­ment re­ally is. Worse, 52 per cent of Cana­di­ans be­lieve beef is sup­ply man­aged, when it is not. What is more, 51 per cent of Cana­di­ans be­lieve milk is not sup­ply man­aged when in fact dairy rep­re­sents about 80 per cent of the en­tire sys­tem all to­gether. Dairy Farm­ers of Canada, ar­guably the strong­est lobby group in the coun­try, has pub­lished sev­eral polls over the years show­ing op­pos­ing ev­i­dence, that Cana­di­ans are in fact sup­port­ive of the sys­tem. Re­gard­less, given its com­plex­ity, one thing is cer­tain: most of us are sim­ply clue­less about the me­chan­ics be­hind sup­ply man­age­ment.

As a re­sult, sup­ply man­age­ment has be­come a sort of a po­lit­i­cal mi­rage over the years. Most hold­ing pub­lic of­fice have told us it is good for us and for our econ­omy, with­out fully ex­plain­ing the ra­tio­nale. Few politi­cians have also sought to demon­strate the indi­rect costs of hang­ing on to such a sys­tem: lost op­por­tu­ni­ties, lack of in­no­va­tion to sup­port trade with other coun­ties, and so forth. In dairy, the sys­tem op­er­ates in com­plete ob­scu­rity, where de­ci­sions are made by dairy farm­ers, for dairy farm­ers. In the mean­time, Cana­di­ans com­ply with this sys­tem, with­out know­ing all the facts. Other than Maxime Bernier, who paid the price for be­com­ing the first per­son in pub­lic of­fice to do so, no­body has dared ques­tion the logic.

That said, with Health Canada send­ing signals that it wants its next food guide to en­cour­age Cana­di­ans to adopt a plant­based diet, the writ­ing seems to be on the prover­bial wall. With the sup­port of sound re­search over the years, we now know that in­cit­ing adults to drink milk is just not on any­more. While science has evolved, the dairy in­dus­try has not, and Ot­tawa knows it. The Cana­dian dairy sec­tor has sur­vived in spite of it­self, with­out try­ing to think about milk in a dif­fer­ent light. It doesn’t want to com­pete be­cause it has never re­ally had to. As bor­ders around the world were open­ing, dairy farm­ers were di­vorc­ing them­selves from the Cana­dian pop­u­la­tion us­ing rhetoric and con­demn­ing any­one dis­play­ing dis­con­tent for the sys­tem. It ap­pears that some dairy groups are even dis­al­low­ing re­search to be con­ducted by any re­searchers who may think dif­fer­ently about sup­ply man­age­ment, which is just plain ridicu­lous. This at­ti­tude of “the sys­tem’s great and leave us alone” just doesn’t cut it any­more.

As a na­tion, de­spite our col­lec­tive ig­no­rance re­gard­ing sup­ply man­age­ment, we have never dis­cussed this very is­sue as much as we have lately. Quite fas­ci­nat­ing. We even saw the pres­i­dent of the United States ac­knowl­edg­ing its ex­is­tence for the first time back in April, in dairy-friendly Wis­con­sin. Since then, mes­sages from the United States have been mixed, and the Trudeau gov­ern­ment seems to be pre­par­ing for sev­eral pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios. Want­ing to make this a true na­tional is­sue, it has just ap­pointed an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee which in­cludes mem­bers from all po­lit­i­cal spec­trums. As for agri­cul­ture, a few key ap­point­ments were made with­out favour­ing one side or the other. Given how pe­riph­eral the role of the com­mit­tee will be, it doesn’t mat­ter who is on it right now, but it will mat­ter once we know more about the next agree­ment, if there is one.

Con­sumers im­plic­itly trust farm­ers, so why would they be­gin doubt them now? But with NAFTA dis­cus­sions about to start, stakes ap­pear to be much higher for all of us. With NAFTA 2.0, some are start­ing to won­der if com­pro­mis­ing the fu­ture of many eco­nomic sec­tors in or­der to safe­guard sup­ply man­age­ment is worth fight­ing for. Ac­cord­ing to the same An­gus Reid poll, most Cana­di­ans are will­ing to sac­ri­fice sup­ply man­age­ment to get a good deal with the Amer­i­cans and Mex­i­cans. This spells trou­ble for dairy farm­ers, and that’s un­for­tu­nate.

Dairies in Canada are hold­ing their col­lec­tive breath since it is the only op­tion they have given them­selves. Not very strate­gic. Let’s hope NAFTA 2.0 will be kind to them, de­spite their decades-long in­ten­tional in­er­tia.

Syl­vain Charlebois is Dean of the Fac­ulty of Man­age­ment, Pro­fes­sor in Food Dis­tri­bu­tion and Pol­icy, Dal­housie Univer­sity. Au­thor of “Risk In­tel­li­gence and Bench­mark­ing: The New World Or­der in Food”, pub­lished by Wi­ley-Blacwell (2017).

Con­sumers trust farm­ers, so why would they be­gin doubt them now? But with NAFTA dis­cus­sions about to start, stakes ap­pear to be higher

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