Monday, 26 October 2015

Where Will Your Milk Come From?

An election campaign isn't always the best time to be negotiating a huge international trade deal.  The just completed (but far from ratified) Trans Pacific Partnership became an important election issue in the just completed national campaign. Holstein cows walking in front of parliament hill became a potent symbol that dairy farmers were worried about the future of supply management, the regulated marketing system that limits production but assures farmers of fair prices. When the news of the deal broke the anxiety seemed misplaced. The Conservative government announced that Canada had given up just over 3% of the dairy market to imports, mostly from the United States and New Zealand. The strange part of the deal is that New Zealand had bet big on dairy exports to drive its economy (think Canada's oil sands without all the CO2). The Kiwi's were demanding access to the American market, and U.S. dairies in turn demanded access to Canada's.

There's a lot of confusion right now about the fine print in the deal, especially an escalator clause that kicks in after 5 years, and allows 1% per year increases in imports for 13 years. No one is sure if it's 1% of the total market, or 1% of the increase (the 3.25%), each year.  If it's the former then this deal is much worse than first expected.

The  other confusion is over the use of a hormone that allows cows to lactate (be milked) for longer than normal. rBST is allowed in the United States but not in Canada. Initially government sources said the U.S. milk that's imported would have to be free of rBST (meet the Canadian standards), but more recently Health Canada has backtracked and said it can't tell U.S. dairy farmers what they can do on their own farms.

A Quebec dairy farmers wrote an important commentary about Canada's milk quality versus he U.S.

Opinion: Consumers, beware the hidden costs of cheap dairy products

Dairy farmers take part in a protest in downtown Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. Dozens of dairy farmers from Ontario and Quebec gathered on Parliament Hill to raise concerns about protecting Canada's supply management system in the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS
The recent Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement proposes to further open the Canadian marketplace to U.S. dairy products. It is still unclear exactly what products will be coming across the border, and how they will find their way to our grocery shelves. Will they be packaged and clearly identified as products of the U.S.A.? Or will they be blended into your favourite yogurt or ice cream along with Canadian milk without so much as a mention on the label?
Why should it even matter?
Almost a decade ago, Canadian dairy farmers decided to harmonize our farms nation wide. This was no small feat. Agriculture is a provincial jurisdiction, meaning each province has its own regulatory framework for standards and procedures. It was a tremendous undertaking.
What exists now is the mandatory Canadian Quality Milk program. There are approximately 12,000 dairy farms across this country, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland. My farm on Quebec’s Gasp√© Peninsula is one of 6,200 dairy farms in this province. We all must meet the same strict milk quality and production requirements. Canadian “on farm” milk quality surpasses regulations for public health and safety.
We haven’t stopped there. Our latest undertaking is the ProAction initiative. We are integrating the strict requirements of our quality program in an ambitious framework including animal traceability, animal welfare, biosecurity and the environment.
Nobody compelled us to do this. We did it for the integrity of our farms, and the confidence of our consumers.
Herein lies my problem with the TPP agreement: No other country in the world has the obligation to satisfy the food expectations of Canadian consumers.
There is no compulsion for U.S. farmers to meet Canadian Quality Milk standards. In fact, depending on which state you are buying your milk in, the quality standards are completely different. There is a national minimum standard that must be respected under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but their minimum standards are considerably less stringent than ours.
We have also rejected the use of rBST (growth hormone) in this country; not so in the United States. Will rBST dairy be shipped into Canada? We will have to take U.S. exporters at their word on this, since rBST cannot be reliably detected in milk. It seems rather ridiculous to bother with Canadian regulations, if we are just going to shrug our shoulders and take an exporter’s word for it.
Canadians should also be concerned about the other values you can’t measure in a glass of milk, like protecting fresh water resources. California has been the poster child for globalized agri-food production. Everything from dairy to lettuce can be mass-produced cheaply under the year round Californian sun. Californians are now coming to grips with the fact that 80 per cent of their fresh water is pouring into agriculture; agri-business has unfettered and unregulated licence to drain the aquifer. And that’s exactly what they are doing.
How about social-justice issues like fair wages for farm labourers? There is a movement in the United States to address the terrible conditions that migrant workers face in the U.S. dairy sector. If you are interested in knowing how bad these conditions could possibly be, go to YouTube and search “Milk with Dignity.” Prepare to be stunned.
I am not vilifying American dairy farmers; they have had no choice but to adapt to their economic environment. If Canadian dairy farmers were to forgo our initiatives in quality and social responsibility, I’m sure we could make our milk more cheaply too.
Before we start celebrating the TPP’s access to dairy imports as a triumph for shoppers, consumers had better reconcile the hidden costs of cheap dairy.
 Jennifer Hayes is a dairy farmer in Shigawake, Que.

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