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OPINION: Oil beats out dairy

Dairy cows much hay at a farm in Quebec. Shubenacadie dairy farmer Gerrit Damsteegt says supply management makes his industry more stable. Ryan Remiorz
Dairy cows munch hay at a farm in Quebec. Ryan Remiorz - The Canadian Press

Response to oil woes vs. dairy supply management paradox points to need for new policy direction

BY JAN SLOMP
GUEST OPINION

On December 2, the Alberta government announced it will impose production discipline on the province's oil companies to bring the price of bitumen-based oil above its cost of production. This came in response to it being discounted by over $50 per barrel compared to higher-grade West Texas Intermediate oil.

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Falling prices would soon cause oil companies to divest or go broke, resulting in unemployment and less business activity. By intervening, the Alberta government is helping oil sector profitability and viability. Within 24 hours of the announcement, the price of bitumen-based oil doubled.
Less than a week after Alberta pulled its economy out of a crisis by implementing supply management for the oil industry, the federal government announced another "compensation" package for dairy farmers.
Canadian dairy farmers have been deprived of 3.5 per cent of our dairy market to European cheese under CETA, 3.5 per cent more to Trans Pacific Partnership countries, and under the USMCA, dairy farmer will lose an additional 3.9 per cent of Canada’s market.

The $98 million “compensation” package will inevitably pit dairy farmers against each other, as funds are being provided to help automate and computerize farms, increasing production in a shrinking market. This is a recipe for farm consolidation, price depression, job loss, a downward spiral in local economies and further dispossession of the next generation of aspiring farmers.
It is hard to imagine how it is possible to compensate for the damage done by recent trade agreements. When the Alberta government steps in to arrange supply management for oil producers, why is it so difficult for the federal government to understand its importance in agriculture?
The eagerness to sign the deeply flawed USMCA must be viewed in light of the Barton report. Shortly after the 2015 federal election, Finance Minister Morneau created the Advisory Council on Economic Growth and appointed Dominic Barton, Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company, as its chair. The council’s February 2017 report claimed Canadian agriculture had under-utilized potential and recommended it be “unleashed” by eliminating trade barriers, facilitating corporate investment and stimulating production for export.

Such measures obviously work very well to increase returns to venture capital, stock markets and other financial derivatives favored by international investment firms – and which clearly benefit a select international elite.
Barton recommends the opposite of supply management. He calls for increasing output to export more regardless of price while facilitating imports of the same commodities. Not only is this a price-depressing mechanism that harms farmers, quality also slips, as trade agreements lower standards in order to open the door for more imports.

It is easy to take self-interested advice and believe Barton’s promises. In contrast, it takes a visionary understanding of the real economy to come up with recommendations that truly benefit all layers in society and address the urgent needs to mitigate climate change and prevent depletion of resources.
Canadian governments need to put aside concocted indicators that equate economic health with positive results for stock markets and large financial institutions. Instead, look at the real-life conditions of farmers and other small businesses that are crucial for rural Canada and end decades of unnecessary and socially destructive rural decline.
Turn away from Barton and look instead at policies implemented by US president Franklin D. Roosevelt to understand what truly spurs on a rural economy. After years of crippling low prices for farm produce, US Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace implemented parity pricing for all farm commodities in 1932. This turned around a chronic downward spiral and fired up a grassroots-driven economic engine. Parity pricing paid farmers a living comparable to unionized industrial workers.
Starting in the mid-1980s with the Uruguay Round of GATT where WTO was formed, free trade agreements, have steadily increased agricultural output while net farm incomes have declined. Policies implemented for Canadian agriculture in general are disastrous and the compensation packages offered dairy farmers are insulting. It’s time to put the brakes on Canadian rural decline, make a U-turn on the USCMA and stop sacrificing the rural economy.

- Dairy farmer Jan Slomp is a former president of the National Farmers Union

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