2003:Tough on Rural Manitoba

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Until recently a bright spot in an otherwise tough agricultural economy, the beef industry was enjoying high prices, rising consumption and a trend to more livestock production on the Prairies. Now many rural Manitobans, and cattle producers in particular, are simply glad to have survived the brutal events of 2003, most significantly the BSE crisis that devastated the beef industry.

The infected cow in Washington State was another piece of bad news, while the final shoe to drop was the discovery that she originated in Canada. Just as the United States border was slowly re-opening to Canadian beef.

Protectionist elements in the United States, most notably congressmen and senators from the northern Plains states, have seized upon this as another reason to further restrict Canadian beef from the United States. This was especially true after Japan, the United States largest beef customer, slammed its borders shut to U.S. beef.

Many are convinced that, had Canada joined with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, our beef industry, and by extension many rural communities, would not be in such dire straits. While our foreign policy – right or wrong – was not the only factor in the beef issue, tough trade issues are more easily resolved when countries are allies, on the same page internationally. A friendlier relationship with President Bush would have helped, something that our diplomatic establishment does not understand. Out here, we pay the price for their hubris and arrogance.

The first signs are encouraging that the new regime in Ottawa will move quickly to repair the damage to the United States trade file. Prime Minister Paul Martin has clearly stated that he is making improved relations with the United States a top priority. His new Agriculture Minister, Bob Speller, came West immediately after the new BSE event to offer what support he could. This was appreciated by both Manitoba’s government and Keystone Agricultural Producers, who met with him on this and other farm issues.

If this otherwise dark cloud has a silver lining, it is that the latest BSE crisis could cause both countries to sober up on the issue of trade. We have one integrated market for beef, livestock and, indeed, most other trade goods. To avoid wrenching disruptions on both sides of the border, we should move to synchronize trade policy and, in the case of livestock, embrace common animal health protocols and standards. This is more in Canada’s interest, although the Americans are more reliant on Canadian goods than they care to admit.

Our high standard of living, including the resources that underwrite health care and social services, is absolutely dependant on trade with the United States. While we should try to export more goods to more countries than we do now, only a fool – or a tenured university professor with a guaranteed income for life, maybe one and the same – would believe we can eliminate our major dependence on trade with the United States. Or be offside with the United States on foreign policy issues that confront us both.

We have no other choice than to understand our major trading partner and work to maintain a good relationship with the United States. Building mutual walls of safety for our integrated beef industry will be a positive move in that direction.

Circles within Circles..