This cul­ture change is hard to swal­low


WHEN CANA­DIAN NE­GO­TIA­TORS GAVE up part of our his­toric sup­ply man­age­ment sys­tem ear­lier this week to the U.S., it was more than a mat­ter of trade.

It was a mat­ter of cul­ture.

And that’s a fact that has been lost on those eager to pla­cate U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the anti sup­ply-man­age­ment crowd.

Cul­ture changes are chal­leng­ing at the best of times. They re­quire a lot of TLC, even in Canada, which is one of the most multi-cul­tural coun­tries in the world.

We still walk on eg­gshells, af­ter more than 400 years of try­ing to meld cul­tures.

Shouldn’t we have learned a les­son by now?

It doesn’t mat­ter that we are a mod­ern so­ci­ety. Cul­ture change is dif­fi­cult. Yet in the case of our sup­ply man­age­ment sys­tem, the cul­tural as­pect is be­ing swept un­der the rug. It’s about more than money.

That’s not to say the fi­nan­cial as­pect of sup­ply man­age­ment is mea­gre.

The an­nual Cana­dian dairy mar­ket is around $16 bil­lion. Giv­ing up ac­cess to three-plus per cent of it, which is what the new deal calls for, is a sig­nif­i­cant amount.

And yes, Ot­tawa has said it’s go­ing to roll out some type of com­pen­sa­tion for dairy farm­ers, which I sus­pect will be sub­stan­tial, in an ef­fort to quiet the sec­tor and its gen­uinely dis­traught pro­duc­ers. There is no ques­tion they feel they’ve been sold out.

But when it comes to a change in cul­ture, it doesn’t mat­ter how lu­cra­tive the pro­gram is. It’s not just about money.

And it’s not just about dairy and the won­der­fully pho­to­genic Hol­steins and other breeds that are so ir­re­sistible to news ed­i­tors who fea­ture sto­ries about the trade ne­go­ti­a­tion fall out. The new deal is also go­ing to af­fect chicken and egg pro­duc­ers in a ma­jor way, and the con­sumers who specif­i­cally want to buy Cana­dian.

“The con­ces­sions of­fer very lit­tle value to Cana­dian con­sumers who have said time and time again they want Cana­dian eggs,” said Roger Pelis­sero, chair of the Egg Farm­ers of Canada. “Yet the very farm fam­i­lies who make sure high-qual­ity, lo­cally pro­duced eggs end up on our ta­bles will see their liveli­hoods weak­ened.”

He made an­other salient point. We in the me­dia al­ways like to re­port that “farm­ers” think this, and “farm­ers” think that, like there’s a uni­fied voice on im­por­tant is­sues.

And of­ten there is. But not on this is­sue.

I’ve been sur­prised to see farm groups who sup­port open trade rush­ing to their com­put­ers to is­sue news re­leases that con­grat­u­late Ot­tawa for reach­ing a deal that they be­lieve will keep bor­ders open for their com­modi­ties, even though they know it’s a punch in the gut to their farm­ing neigh­bours in sup­ply man­aged sec­tors.

Said Pelis­sero: “We are al­ways wor­ried about the im­pact re­sult­ing from in­creased ac­cess on the sus­tain­abil­ity of Cana­dian egg, poul­try and dairy in­dus­tries, and are es­pe­cially con­cerned about what ap­pears to be yet an­other dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on our fel­low dairy farm­ers.” So what now? Sup­ply man­aged farm­ers need to step on the gas and con­vince con­sumers their dairy, eggs and poul­try are bet­ter than the cheap im­ports that con­sumers will see more of on store shelves.

These farm­ers have Cana­dian cul­ture on their side. They’ve started to cap­i­tal­ize on it, par­tic­u­larly with the blue cow cam­paign that an­nounces prod­ucts con­tain 100 per cent Cana­dian milk. A con­sumer cam­paign has been launched to drum up sup­port for Cana­dian dairy ask­ing that pro­ces­sors clearly iden­tify Cana­dian milk con­tent and that re­tail­ers stock such prod­ucts.

I’m sure re­tail­ers will also stock im­ported prod­ucts. Con­sumers should have a choice.

But they should also be aware of the im­pli­ca­tions of the choices they make, and farm­ers will need to make that clear to them.

The way we pro­duce food is part of our cul­ture, and sup­ply man­aged farm­ers are a big part of it.

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