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Make American dairy farms great again! Adopt supply management

Photo: A modern U.S. dairy operation/Wikipedia

Never imagine, even for a moment, that U.S. President Donald Trump was serious when he talked about standing up for the interests American farmers in his notorious anti-Canadian trade speech at the Snap-On Tool factory in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Some Wisconsin dairy farmers may have been pleased when Trump began bloviating on the topic because anything is better than nothing when you're in desperate straits. And have no doubt, a lot of American dairy farmers are in desperate straits.

But the interests Trump is defending are those of the multinational "agri-food" corporations that hold Wisconsin dairy farmers in a grip that approaches feudal vassalage, and which would love to be able to do the same thing to their counterparts down on the Canadian farm.

Remember, despite his lies, misdirection and deceptions, the not-so-competent Trump serves the same neoliberal corporate masters as the quite competent Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated in last fall's U.S. presidential election with a little help from his friends in the FBI and -- who knows? -- maybe the FSB as well.

So his problem with the "very unfair things" supposedly going on in Canadian agriculture's supply-managed dairy, poultry and egg sectors may be that they offer a good, very good example to U.S. farmers that the agri-food lobby and its friends in Washington would very much like to eliminate forever.

On the other hand, speaking of desperate straits, with the end of his shambolic first 100 days in office fast approaching, President Trump may want desperately to look as if he's doing something for the schmucks who voted for him when, despite his big talk, he hasn't really done anything much at all since he was sworn in on Jan. 20.

Because when farmers are left to themselves, they can usually be counted on to produce themselves into poverty, it's good to have something to blame for the problems you’ve created. As Wisconsin farmer Chris Holman observed in a recent blog post, "Sorry Canada, this time that thing is you!"

"Scapegoating Canadian trade policy is a brilliant move as morally flexible politics goes, but as is often the case with finger-pointing, anyone doing it in a situation like this looks suspiciously like a guilty four-year-old,” Holman wrote.

Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates about 163 million litres of heavily subsidized American milk were dumped in fields, manure ponds or otherwise went down the drain in the first eight months of 2016, U.S. farmers in financial trouble would dearly love the opportunity to dump it in Canada instead. Supply-managed Canadian dairy farmers, by the way, receive zero subsidies from our taxes.

And lots of American dairy farms are in big financial trouble. According to the USDA, and state agencies quoted by Holman, about 500 Wisconsin farms close every year as the dairy industry there grows ever more concentrated. And, believe me, this has nothing to do with Canada.

Of course, bad neoliberal economic policies have the same kind of friends on both sides of the Medicine Line, which may be why the Canadian supply management system, which supplies high-quality product to Canadians at a fair price while ensuring dairy, poultry and egg farmers earn a living wage, has been under attack by the same types in Canada.

This explains why the Usual Suspects, like the neoliberal propagandists in Thinktankistan and their publicity auxiliary in Canadian media where Postmedia and The Globe and Mail compete to outdo one another with hysterical denunciations of supply management, are positively gleeful at President Trump's bombastic attacks on Canada.

"Dear Donald Trump," exclaimed the failing Globe and Mail in an editorial attacking at least some of its few remaining readers, "please milk Canada's sacred dairy cow."

It's true that supply management does "interfere with the market" to ensure a steady supply of supply-managed products at a fair price -- which is enough to send the Globe and Postmedia into paroxysms of apoplexy on ideological grounds alone.

But we can be reasonably sure that certain things will happen in the Canadian market without it, notwithstanding the fairy-tale promises made by neoliberal journalists, think-tank shills and a few geographically fortunate farmers located next to major centres.

First, as is happening in Wisconsin, there will be significant concentration of the Canadian egg, poultry and dairy farming into a few corporate hands.

In dairy, though, it may be all for naught over the long term for the simple reason most of our milk will eventually be trucked in from places with more favourable climates for year-round feed crops, like Mexico and the southern United States.

If you imagine that will make it cheaper, though, don't bet the farm … as it were. Without supply management, Canada's heavily concentrated grocery supply corporations will merrily continue to charge consumers pretty much what they please. The profits, though, will go into corporate pockets, not those of community members and farmers.

The occasional loss leader may give the illusion milk or eggs are cheaper, but that will come at the expense of dairy farmers and extra mark-ups on other groceries.

Moreover, the not-so-cheap milk you do get will be loaded with Recombinant Bovine Growth hormone and antibiotics necessary to run dairies in the U.S. market.

If you imagine the market will provide a niche for producers of artisanal products for consumers willing to pay a little bit more, dream on. Surviving Canadian dairies will be screaming to adopt the same strategies. They will say they have little choice, and they will be right.

The government of Canada will end up having to compensate farmers with quota to the tune of billions of dollars -- which will be paid by you and me.

So the short answer is that while supply management gives consumers a quality product at a price that allows local farmers a living wage, the alternative is not cheaper milk, cheese, eggs and poultry. It's the same price for lower quality food produced in dystopic conditions and hauled across the continent in diesel trucks.

Well, I suppose we should be thankful President Trump is not yet sending real bombs our way, but if this attack succeeds, you can count on it that the health of our economy, the success of our agricultural sector and the people who run it, and the physical wellbeing of Canadians who consume these products will all be worse.

As National Farmers Union President Jan Slomp cheekily advised Trump a few days ago, if he really wants to make American dairy farms great again, he should adopt supply management.

This post also appears on rabble.ca.

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