We need to market uniqueness not a level playing field

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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November 14, 2003: Pork producers have launched an initiative to ban the use of meat and bone meal in the diet of Ontario pigs by March of next year. The new policy can be linked to the discovery of one Alberta cow with mad cow disease back in May. The link is not a scientific one. Feeding recycled animal products back to animals has developed a perception problem.

Recycling animal products has become a sensitive issue. In 1997 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency banned the feeding of recycled products from ruminant animals back to other ruminants, like cattle, sheep, goats, bison, elk or deer. Pigs are not ruminants but our pork sector is taking the ban a step further. Pork producers will be buying more expensive protein supplements for their pig feed.

American pork producers are feeling no need to follow suit. After all, their country is still officially BSE-free. They will continue to use meat and bone meal as a cheap source of protein in pig diets; giving them a competitive advantage over our farmers. They will continue to send pork to Canadian superstore shelves.

While Canadian farmers go out of their way to produce a quality product with added features, someone else's product, that meets lower standards, will be on the shelf right beside it -- at a lower price.

This happens again and again. Canada has not approved the use of a bovine hormone that boosts milk production. American milk producers use it and can send their milk products to our grocery store shelves. American fruits and vegetable growers have access to pesticides not approved in Canada, but their fruits and vegetables comes north by the truckload.

This scenario is repeated in other countries. British farmers are required to meet high animal welfare standards but pig meat from around the world is filling their superstore shelves -- at lower prices. The European Union is proposing to ban atrazine, a cost effective herbicide for corn production but U.S. corn, grown with atrazine, will continue to feed European livestock.

Our first instinct is to label these situations unfair - good intentions and hard work undermined by cheap imports produced to different standards. Solution? Demand a level playing field?

Is this really the best solution? A level playing field implies competing strictly on price - joining the race to the bottom, a treadmill to ever lower prices.

Marketing the uniqueness of farm products stands a much better chance to deliver financial rewards for good intentions and hard work. Ontario Pork is on the right track in its study on costs and consequences of the ban on meat and bone meal. It will also study marketing advantages for Ontario pig meat.




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