By Patrick Meagher
It was back in 2002 when the U.S. Farm Bill passed that required retailers to attach country of origin labels (COOL) to perishable agriculture products. That’s right: 13 years ago. Premier Kathleen Wynne was a school trustee, not even an MPP candidate. The year began with Premier Mike Harris and Minister of Agriculture Brian Coburn and ended with Premier Ernie Eves and Minister of Agriculture Helen Johns.
The fight over COOL has been around for every single year since and every year that Kathleen Wynne has been in provincial politics. In one of those years she was even provincial minister of agriculture. You would think she must have understood how frustrating COOL was for farmers across the country.
Canadian livestock producers opposed COOL, delaying the U.S. law, which was eventually passed in late 2008. The law forced U.S. meat packing companies to track Canadian cattle and pigs. As a result, they simply refused to buy Canadian livestock.
The following year, COOL was implemented for muscle cuts, ground beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat and chicken, fish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables. Mexico and Canada asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to review the labelling law while Canadian farmers fumed over the now-dry income stream that forced some out of business.
The WTO ruled four times against COOL (in 2011, 2012, 2014, and then again last month). All four rulings were in Canada’s favour and the United States has now run out of appeals. The Canadian government immediately warned of retaliation — slapping a surtax on a long list of U.S. imports, including livestock, beef, pork, apples, cherries, tomatoes, chocolate, pasta, even jewelry and wooden office furniture — if the U.S. doesn’t comply.
Premier Wynne laughed off the retaliation warning with CTV’s Don McPherson the day after the May 18 ruling. “The ruling just came down yesterday,” Wynne said. “So, my position would be, let’s give the States a little bit of time to put in place legislation. Let’s assume that they’re going to abide by the ruling.”
Writing for Real Agriculture, Kelvin Heppner, a Manitoba farmer, was incredulous. “The U.S. needs more time? Really? Canadian producers haven’t lost enough money?”
The losses to the Canadian cattle and hog industries have been estimated at over $1 billion.
While trying to sound like the voice of reason in an international dispute, Wynne added weight to the sinking feeling among many farmers that she’s not looking out for them. How abiding will the U.S. government be when it has opposed all four WTO rulings and has dragged this out for 13 years? Who really thinks the U.S. wants to comply? Clearly, the retaliation threat was a necessary push. A day later, the U.S. House of Representatives’ agricultural committee voted to repeal COOL to avoid a Canadian backlash.
This issue reinforces the sentiment that Wynne is uninterested in farming and agri-businesses. She has allowed electricity costs to rise to among the highest of all regions in North America and has watched as food manufacturers leave the province.
More recently, on the province’s proposed virtual ban on neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seeds, rather than allow grain farmers time until after planting season for comments, she shut down the comment period. Grain Farmers of Ontario chairman and crop farmer Mark Brock said the seven-week comment period was about 10 times faster than comment periods for other draft legislation much less contentious.
Wynne is pushing a huge reduction of neonic use — a significant threat to a crop farmer’s bottom line — even though the province has yet to point to one specific study that supports such a heavy-handed play.
On the one hand, the Americans need a little time while livestock farmers lose more money. On the other hand, crop farmers don’t need any more time — again to ensure that farmers lose more money.
The mounting anti-business bias that occupies Queen’s Park is alarming.