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China's concerns about Canadian canola are legitimate, and we're going to have to deal with them sooner or later

Canola

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According to the Globe and Mail, or at least one of the five apparently like-minded individuals interviewed recently by the newspaper's "national food reporter," the Chinese government's concerns about the quality of Canadian canola seed is "simply a political trade issue that the Chinese have chosen to push forward. It's not based on science."

Everyone the Globe talked to told pretty much the same story...a little bit of blackleg fungus is no big deal, the Chinese are being unreasonable, the science hasn't changed, there's a big canola crop in China this year, "there's no reason to tighten the criteria," and so on. Reports in other general-interest news publications mostly had the same tone.

If you think about it, this is a fairly insulting thing to say about the Chinese, who in fact have legitimate concerns about the quality of the canola that's being shipped to them from Canada.

But, face it, most Canadians -- including avid readers of political news -- seldom pay much attention to the agricultural sector, even when it comes to an important crop like the Canadian-developed oilseed with distinctive flowers that turns many fields around Western Canadian cities bright yellow for a few days each summer, and generates almost $2 billion for Canadian farmers while creating more than a quarter million Western Canadian jobs every year.

Anyway -- perhaps thanks to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's efforts on his recent trip to China -- the Chinese have reluctantly signed on to an "interim agreement" to put off requiring Canadian oilseed producers meet new and higher standards for their canola seed. So readers can expect all news coverage outside specialty agricultural publications to stop until the Chinese remind us this is an interim deal, and we hear the same accusations about their motives all over again.

Just the same, there's more to this story than a major importer's intransigent search for a better deal, or the percentage of "dockage" -- that is, dirt, straw, seed pods and other crap, some of it infected with fungus, which the Chinese want limited to one per cent -- that finds its way into Canadian canola seeds bound for export.

In fact, the problem has its roots in Western Canadian politics -- specifically, the free-market fanaticism of the former Harper Government.

As the estimable Ken Larsen of the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance put it in a recent blog post, "how would you feel if you bought a thousand grams of rice to feed your family and found 25 grams of the bag made up of weed seeds, stems and chaff?"

Let's imagine the rice came from China and, when you complained to the store, the president of China issued a statement saying your demands for clean food would have to wait, and the retailer told you your concerns were unscientific and you were an ignoramus.

"Most reasonable people would be astounded and offended," Larsen wrote. "Yet this is exactly what has happened on the issue of canola sales during the Prime Minister's visit to China."

The CWB Alliance is a farm organization set up to try to save the collectively owned marketing board for Western Canadian wheat and barley, established by Act of Parliament in 1935, when the Harper government decided it didn't jibe with its idea of corporate "economic freedom." That effort failed. In 2012, the Harper Government seized the CWB's farmer-owned assets and sold them off for a song to Saudi and American corporate interests. So you might want to dismiss the views of Larsen, who farms near Sylvan Lake.

Still, while the CWB didn't market canola, his argument that many of the problems Canadian canola producers are experiencing have their origins in the general attitudes about the best way to run an agriculture industry held by the market-fundamentalist the Harper Government is credible. And while the Harper Government is mercifully gone, some of its sympathetic bureaucrats linger in the federal bureaucracy to whisper bad advice in Trudeau's ear.

According to various sources, before Harper and his agriculture minister, Gerry Ritz, fired the impartial government inspectors of the Canadian Grain Commission, the federal agency responsible for overseeing regulation of the grain handling industry, their inspections found most of the crops in rail cars, including canola, came in with less than 2 per cent weed seeds and other foreign material.

The Manitoba Cooperator says "the 'dirty little secret'" of Canada's grain export system is that dockage is routinely added back into the cargo holds to bring levels back up to near the maximum 2.5 per cent allowed for commercially cleaned grain."

"The Canadian Grain Commission measures dockage in increments of 0.1 per cent," the Cooperator reported last week. "The commission's statistics for dockage in canola during the crop year just past averaged below two per cent." (Emphasis added in both paragraphs.)

Surely this practice only makes sense because it allows private-sector companies of the type favoured by Harper and Ritz to charge canola farmers for cleaning their seeds -- which were already clean when the farmers bought them in.

Added to the extraneous junk that was fed back into the canola by commercial resellers are the plant diseases our Chinese customers don't want getting into their crops.

According to Larsen, farmer funded but industry dominated crop groups have adopted the time-honoured strategy of blaming the customer, in this case China. These are the groups that find the experts to be interviewed by city dwelling mainstream media reporters, who then feed us the line that this is all about the sharp business practices and the politics of our customers.

Well, even if that were true -- and in this case it's not -- whatever happened to the notion "the customer is always right?"

Right now, China buys 40 per cent of Canada's export canola crop. Nowadays, though, the oilseed we created is grown all over the world. For example, it's also one of Australia's largest crops.

So here's something for the prime minister and his international trade minister, Chrystia Freeland, to think about: If we don't give this big customer what it wants so we can help pad the bottom lines of the multinational "agri-food" corporations that were given a leg up by Harper, what do you think China is going to do?

And even if the Chinese are wrong, as former Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade official Hugh Stephens reminded us in recent commentary in the Vancouver Sun: "They are our largest customer. Perhaps we should listen to them."

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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