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.