Canada sacrifices small farmers on the altar of free trade at WTO talks

Alberta Express and Manitoba Cooperator - May 28, 2008
Op-ed by Jim Cornelius and Gerry Barr

Take a walk in your local grocery store and you are likely to see something new happening - an increasing number of Canadians are voting with their dollars to support the livelihoods of those who grow their food. Whether through buying more local food or demanding fairly-traded products like coffee, Canadians are paying attention to the ethical implications of where they spend their food dollars.

This is in stark contrast to the Canadian government's position in the current round of agricultural trade negotiations that are under way at the World Trade Organization. The WTO's Director-General recently said that a meeting of the world's trade Ministers to agree on the outlines for a new global trade deal is likely for the end of May. But instead of following the ethical lead of the Canadian public, negotiators are kicking down the doors to open developing country markets for Canadian exporters to sell their products. This hurts poor farmers and limits the availability of locally-produced food.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's studies show that displacing local production in developing countries has dire consequences for the livelihoods of the small scale farmers.

Following a 650 percent increase in tomato paste imports from the European Union from 1998 to 2003, tomato farmers in Ghana lost 40 percent of their market share and saw prices drop dramatically.

In Cameroon, poultry imports increased nearly 300 percent between 1999 and 2004, forcing 92 percent of poultry farmers out of the market. The move cost nearly half a million rural jobs.

In Mozambique, a surge in vegetable oil imports saw a fivefold increase between 2000 and 2004, driving down domestic production and affecting more than 108,000 smallholder households that depend on growing oilseeds.

Developing countries, led by the Philippines, want to defend their small farmers from cheap food imports that threaten their ability to sell their own produce at local markets. Currently the world is witnessing a surge in food prices, due to many factors including rising fuel costs, production declines from climate change, and the channeling of food crops into "biofuel". But the history of agricultural markets is a volatile one. Unstable prices are particularly hard on small farmers who do not have the means to withstand boom and bust cycles. Large parts of developing countries' populations still make their living on small farms. Developing countries are asking for tools that can be employed to protect farmers when necessary. Why? Because food security requires predictability, and open borders make prices more unstable.

Although this WTO round was billed as a "development" round, most developing countries have now pegged Canada's negotiating position as anything but friendly to the world's poorest farmers. Canadian trade negotiators are strongly resisting developing country demands to give import protection to those farm products produced by their smallest and poorest farmers. Instead, Canadian negotiators have joined forces with the United States and Australia to make sure that developing country markets remain open for all exports, regardless of the local consequences.

The displacement of locally-raised pork in the Philippines by Canadian pork tells the story well.

According to Agriculture Canada, Canadian exports of pork to the Philippines have doubled since 2004, with Canada now holding more than 2/3 of the import market in the country. Hazel Tanchuling from the Philippine non-governmental organization Rice Watch works at documenting impacts of agricultural trade on local farmers and confirmed that "Filipino hog raisers are mostly small farmers, many of them women." Tanchuling says that associations of small farmers are increasingly complaining about the rise in imports and have asked that pork get special protection. Without this protection, the demise of local pork production because of Canadian imports will likely be chalked up by trade negotiators as a sacrifice required by developing countries at the altar of free trade.

As our negotiators ratchet up the pressure on developing countries to get a deal signed, one has to wonder how Canadians feel about the position we are taking. Why doesn't the move towards more ethical choices about our food, signaled by local food and fair trade, extend to our international trade policy? For the sake of small scale farmers the world over who depend on local markets to feed their families, we hope it still can.

Jim Cornelius
Executive Director
Canadian Foodgrains Bank

Gerry Barr
Canadian Council for International Co-operation