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CETA and milk: Common sense in short supply

A delegation of the Council of Canadians and the Trade Justice Network are in Brussels today as a fourth round of negotiations start on the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA. See Brent Patterson’s July 2 post or our recent press release for a look at our plans this week. Today, it’s all about the milk. So I’m going to talk about milk after a little tangent on CETA.

CETA used to be called CEPA, a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, when the deal was announced in May 2009. Someone at DFAIT must have realized EPAs are for developing countries, or where one partner is clearly more powerful than the other (EU-Africa, EU-Caribbean, India-Sri Lanka, etc). Clearly the EU, as the biggest economy in the world, is the bigger player in these talks but the optics were bad. So Canada and the EU changed a letter, avoiding for some unknown reason the term “free trade agreement,” which is what CETA really is: a fancy name for an FTA that will apply ‘free market’ rules more broadly than past agreements have.

The Canadian delegation to Brussels was invited by European Coordination Via Campesina to speak at a milk demo today outside the European Commission. Farmers are demanding fairness in the EU dairy industry and it has everything to do with trade.

“Milk producers need stable and fair milk prices that cover their average production costs,” says a call-out for today’s demonstration, which is expected to draw hundreds of farmers into the streets. “Consumers need stable and fair milk prices that reflect the real costs of producers, processing industry and retail. The additional amount charged by processing industry and retail has to be distributed fair and transparently among all members of the milk chain.”

We basically have this kind of system in Canada. So Scott Sinclair (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) and I will talk at the rally about the importance of Canada’s supply managed dairy sector and the threats to supply management from CETA. Though Prime Minister Harper and all four major political parties in Canada have vowed to protect supply management, there is pressure for Canada to weaken its system through the EU negotiations.

In Europe, the European Commission – the executive body responsible for proposing and enacting legislation, including economic and trade policy – has moved some way toward deregulating the milk sector so that milk prices are based on ‘global market’ forces – not on the average costs for the sustainable production of milk in Europe for the European market. Production quotas set too high by the Commission further pushed down prices by flooding the EU market with milk. Farmers are committing suicide, as they do by the thousands in other parts of the world, because they can’t make ends meet.

Canada’s system works (very roughly) by putting high quotas on imported milk, dairy and poultry products and through a quota system that guarantees fair prices for farmers and cheap prices at the supermarket for Canadians. Americans pay ever so slightly less for these goods but it’s hard to impossible to argue we’d be better off by shaving pennies off the cost of chicken breasts if it meant insecurity and lower wages for farmers.

Still, Canadian free traders and many media commentators never miss a chance to demonize Canada’s ‘fair trade’ supply management system. They are an obsessive group in the full sense of the word — they see a blot on their vision of the world and want to scrub it out. Supply management is the opposite of free trade and it works! How can this be? Columnists such as Jeffrey Simpson are so irritated by this contradiction of their world view that they write article after article demanding Canada’s farmers give up a good thing!

Via Campesina says it doesn’t make sense for EU milk prices to be determined by its export market for butter and powdered milk, yet this is what deregulation in Europe is about. It is the absolute opposite of the concept of food sovereignty – that food production needs to be re-localized, that specialization and mass production is unsustainable, that communities need to set their own food priorities, that imports are not the solution for countries that can’t afford to import food, etc. This applies whether your a developed or developing country.

Canada’s supply managed system is intact and safe for now. The Wheat Board, on the other hand, may not survive CETA (despite its success as another manged, not ‘free market’, food system worthy of emulation), and has been under constant attack from the Harper government since it was elected. The threat of CETA to supply management may be a red herring in the negotiations or it may be very real. But it nonetheless reflects the goals of the deal: more deregulation, an emphasis on exports no matter the cost to local producers and workers, and pushing ‘free market’ logic into areas where it has no place — like our food.

For more on the threats to farmers from CETA, particularly from the proposed intellectual property chapter (another means of disempowering farmers, and empowering multinational seed and biotech firms), see the fact sheets at The National Farmers Union, Canadian Biotechnology Action Network and Union Paysanne are all members of the Trade Justice Network.