LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Food Trade is Not Widget Trade
Ag officials need to keep the complexities of agricultural markets and food trade in the foreground as they begin to mold the future of global trade

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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August 1, 2003: When Canada's Chief Agricultural Trade Negotiator comes to Guelph to speak to farm leaders, one expects to hear an upbeat message about the positive goals of the 146-nation, Doha round of trade negotiations. From some perspectives more trade is, by definition, good economics. After Afghanistan and Iraq, the world economy needs a lift. Tearing down agricultural trade barriers by the end of 2004 would be just the right tonic.

Canada's agricultural goals for the Doha Round are well known: real cuts in domestic farm subsidies by those rich treasuries in the United States and the European Union, an end to export subsidies, and better access to mutual markets shaped by flexibility to guarantee survival of our approach to dairy and poultry products.

But Steve Verheul's intent at the July annual meeting of the George Morris Centre was to tone down expectations for the negotiations. Countries are not shifting from their initial positions. A draft report written by Stuart Harbison, chair of the World Trade Organization General Council, was roundly condemned by all. The talks have missed a series of deadlines. The European Union is changing, not cutting, its approach to domestic subsidies. The United States continues to defend its export subsidy, disguised as a food aid program. Talks between the European Union and the United States raise the specter of a pact between the two powerhouses presented as a "take it or leave it deal" to the rest of the world.

So, a new trade agreement may take a little longer. Fine. I do not share the perspective that more trade is, by definition, good economics -- particularly trade in agricultural products.

First, more trade means a still longer food chain. Typical products on grocery store shelves are already well traveled -- 2500 kilometres on average by some estimates. We are, in essence, building a food system heavily dependent on fuel consumption. As access to fossil fuel supplies becomes more competitive, that reliance poses a great long-term risk.

Second, more trade means more risk of deflation in the farm and food economy. For decades, technological innovation, productivity, the ingenuity of farmers and externalized costs have created a gentle deflation in farm and food prices in North America. More agricultural trade will force our food system into just-in-time inventory, offshore outsourcing and a still greater push to replace people work with technology work.

Third, trade in farm and food products is not like buying and selling widgets. It is far more demanding and unstable. Safety, quality and methods of production all bring unique challenges when food moves across boundaries. Canada's first mad cow has already closed borders for two months.

Trade in food needs its own unique approach.

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Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.