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Pure milk or pure ideology? Alberta MP attacks supply management

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Brent Rathgeber

ST. ALBERT, Alberta

Brent Rathgeber, Member of Parliament for Edmonton St. Albert, has launched a third "attack" on the policies of the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

But it's safe to say the local bi-weekly newspaper here in St. Albert got it completely bass-ackwards when it reported Rathgeber had "put himself squarely at odds with his own party this week with an attack on Canada's supply management system."

Au contraire! It's clear that Rathgeber's role in Harper's government is as the guy that runs stuff up the flagpole to see who salutes.

Since he never gets disciplined by his disciplinarian prime minister, it's pretty obvious this was what Rathgeber was up to when he suggested the CBC should be run as a charity like the cowed and marginalized Public Broadcasting Service in the United States. Apparently this one didn't fly, as Rathgeber eventually dropped it.

Not long ago, Rathgeber launched a sharp attack against former minister of international co-operation and orange juice, Bev Oda, just days before she "decided" to resign from both her cabinet portfolio and her seat in the House of Commons.

This time, in what starts off as a defence of the Harper government's decision to effectively shut down the Canadian Wheat Board, a post on Rathgeber's blog soon turns into a broadside against supply management -- the system whereby milk, eggs and poultry have been marketed in Canada since the 1970s and which is half-heartedly supported by the Harper Conservatives for reasons of political necessity.

Rathgeber proceeds to trot out all the textbook criticisms of supply management associated with market fundamentalists like Harper. The principal argument against supply management, of course, is that since it raises the prices farmers can charge for their produce, it results in higher prices for consumers. As Rathgeber puts it, "the supply management system therefore results in a legal transfer of income from millions of Canadian consumers, who pay higher prices for regulated food products, to less than 20,000 domestic farmers."

Naturally, as we would expect from a loyal member of a highly ideological party, this simplistic formula ignores the price-setting power of corporate food processors and retailers, both sectors that are dominated by a tiny elite of massive corporations. Many factors influence food prices in Canada, as is suggested by the big variations in milk prices across the country -- an average $4.45 for four litres in Regina in 2011, compared with $6.95 for the same amount in Charlottetown, according to the Government of Canada's own figures.

Do you really imagine food prices will come down now that we've demonstrated to corporate food producers what we’re willing to pay? It's said here that no matter how little the farmers get, our prices will remain high because the Canadian retailing and processing oligopoly has the market power to enforce the prices it wants us to pay.

Still, your blogger has to confess here that he is not an unmitigated enthusiast for supply management -- the command and control system that sets prices by giving legal "marketing boards" the power to set production rates and wholesale prices for milk, "industrial milk" (used in processed food), eggs, chickens and turkeys by awarding quotas to individual farmers. Farmers must have quota -- which can cost tens of thousands of dollars per cow -- in order to legally sell the produce. This also means imports of these products are not permitted, except for industrial milk and cheese used in processed products, which are subject to tariffs.

This leads to another of Rathgeber's arguments, that supply management serves as an impediment to Canadian participation in trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership, negotiations for which the Canadian government has recently been "invited" to join. Can it really be true that the TPP countries would exclude Canada over supply management when they have their own agricultural subsidies and controls? Unlikely.

Indeed, I very much doubt the countries involved in the TPP care much at all about our subsidies or agricultural practices. They just want unfettered access to our market to dump their surplus produce.

Still, it's always struck me as a little self-serving for supply managed farmers to say, as they frequently do, that supply management gives us consumers stable and predictable prices -- which is true enough, even if those prices have been predictably high compared to those in the country next door.

But it's absurd to argue, as Rathgeber seems to be doing, that ending supply management would usher in an era of grocery-shelf nirvana for Canadian consumers, or that there would be no other consequences for Canadians.

Given the economies of the corporate dairy sector, for example, most milk in the United States is produced using Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. Because they could, thanks to supply management, Canadian farmers listened to the views of their consumers and considered the welfare of their livestock and rejected RBG.

So, count on it, if supply management is eliminated, not only will Canada's small and mid-sized dairy and poultry operations be wiped out almost overnight by multinational bulk suppliers, but the economics of the system Conservatives like Rathgeber are championing will require the use of RBG and like substances. So whether or not the price will go down, which is no certainty, the quality of the product we buy will decline.

Moreover, the inevitable structural changes will hit small towns throughout the Prairies and destroy many businesses in the agricultural supply chain -- and the employees they support. The impacts on our health and that of our children are harder to predict, but they are unlikely to be beneficial.

Canadian dairy and poultry farmers that try to soldier on for a spell will essentially become employees of predatory multinational agricultural corporations -- which, it is said here, would suit Harper and Rathgeber just fine. (One wonders if, under these circumstances, the government of Alberta Premier Alison Redford would look more kindly at the idea of allowing farm workers to join unions, a Charter-protected right that is nevertheless currently illegal in Alberta.)

And, mark my words, urban consumers will pay for whatever lower prices we see on the grocery shelves in service cuts caused by lower corporate taxes, hidden subsidies to agricultural multinationals and environmentally destructive corporate farming practices. More growth hormones in your kids' milk? Less tax money for urban services? Count on both!

As for those trade deals, ask yourself, how well have all those other trade deals we've signed on to worked out for ordinary Canadian consumers and working people? To say the least, that's a topic for debate.

Finally, on the matter of real politics, supply managed dairy farmers are particularly influential in the politics of Quebec, which are about to take on a separatist hue once again, as always seems to happen when we have the misfortunate to have Conservatives on the government benches in Ottawa. Guess for whom this will be a great issue!

So which do you value more, the survival of Canada, or ideological market-fundamentalist perfection? I fear I know the answer when it comes to Harper.

Rathgeber concludes his post by stating, with reference to the government's destruction of the Wheat Board, that Western Canadian grain farmers have proved "they can successfully compete without a government-sanctioned cartel." Of course, the Wheat Board wasn't a cartel, it was a collective bargaining agent for Western wheat and barley growers, and we know how the Harper Government feels about collective bargaining when it's the little guy that benefits.

It's a little rich to suggest as Rathgeber does that anything has been proved, since the Wheat Board's single-desk system was shut down only seven days ago. I wouldn't be surprised the impacts of this policy decision turn out to be considerably more severe for Western grain farmers than this market fundamentalist government is pretending just now. And for the rest of us, since our American neighbours are already demanding that we lower our wheat quality standards so they can send inferior product up here.

Regardless, one thing is a virtual certainty: If Rathgeber is attacking supply management, the prime minister and his other minions are not far behind.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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