Year ahead: Gerry Ritz on politics, farming and trade wars

EDMONTON – If Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz could have one wish come true in 2014, it would probably be to somehow squeeze politics out of farming and trade.

In the coming months, Canada will be heading to the World Trade Organization to lay the groundwork for possible sanctions against the United States over country-of-origin meat-labelling rules (COOL) that are bleeding Canadian beef and hog producers.

Ritz said the looming trade war could be avoided if U.S. policy were based on fairness and science instead of to harvest votes.

Canada’s pledge to retaliate against a wide range of U.S. products from orange juice to bread if COOL isn’t scrapped or amended is no idle threat, he said in a telephone interview recently.

“This is not a game of chicken here. This is a game of reality,” Ritz said. “They are hurting our industry to the tune of $1 billion per year.”

The effect of the labelling policy, first implemented in 2008, has been to cut Canadian cattle and hog shipments to the U.S. in half.

The rules, which became even more onerous last month, require detailed labels about the origins of beef, pork and chicken sold in U.S. stores. That increases costs and makes it more difficult for U.S. companies to buy Canadian products.

The federal government will have other political issues to chew on in the new year besides COOL.

Prairie farm groups have been lobbying Ottawa to get tough with Canada’s two major railways over delays in shipping bumper crops of grain this fall to ports for export.

There have been calls for the Conservative government to amend legislation enacted just last June called the Fair Rail Freight Service Act.

The groups want to make it easier to fine railways if they don’t deliver grain in a more timely way.

Ritz said the transportation bottleneck is more complicated than the farm groups are suggesting. He suggested the players involved need to work together to sort out the problem.

“I think those who are complaining should look in the mirror and realize that there are efficiencies that they can do themselves.

“This is an arrangement between buyers and sellers and shippers. No one is without blemish.”

The grain crop this year in Western Canada was 16 per cent larger than last year and 10 per cent greater than the previous record in 2008-2009.

Both Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railway have said the huge volume is putting significant pressure on transportation and they are working flat out to step up deliveries.

The new freight legislation does include provisions for a review of its effectiveness in 2015. Ritz suggested that could happen earlier if the situation doesn’t improve.

“Earlier rather than later would fit my agenda.”

The coming year will also see the government move ahead with its Agriculture Growth Act that was introduced a few weeks ago.

The bill seeks to bolster the financial rights of companies that develop new seed varieties, which could lead to farmers growing new crop varieties to meet international demand for new products.

The legislation would allow farmers to use seeds from crops they grew from these new varieties as long as they paid a fee to the company that developed the seed.

Most farm groups support the legislation, but there are critics.

The National Farmers Union has said the seed provisions of the bill are simply a mechanism for international seed giants to grab more money from farmers.

Ritz dismissed that criticism as being nothing more than politics.

The legislation would also make it easier for farmers to apply for cash advance programs and more farm products would be eligible for interest-free loans.