Last week I wrote a piece on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the potential implications of a (then pending) new agreement on our provincial economy. We now have NAFTA 2.0, and it’s useful to examine how it might impact our Island.
In my previous blog, I wrote about the threats to our provincial economic sovereignty and well-being posed by such international agreements. The sector most impacted by the new agreement is our Island dairy industry. Farmers are often caught in the vortex of trade agreements, as perhaps more than any other part of our globally integrated economy, agriculture exists in a dizzying environment of subsidies (both overt and hidden), protections and other market distortions. Free trade agreements over the past few decades have pushed us inexorably towards a world of open markets, fewer regulations and dominance of multinational corporations.
In Canada, where supply management has existed in poultry, egg and dairy sectors for decades, those sectors are a constant target of those who have faith in unregulated trade and the evils of government “interference” in the marketplace. Those who believe in the importance of maintaining safe, sustainable, local food - and indeed see that as a national security issue – worry that exposing our farmers to competition that operates under a different set of environmental, labour and food safety regimes, will threaten both their livelihoods and the health of Canadians.
“Protectionism” is a dirty word in the realm of global trade negotiations, but in this case we are talking about protecting safe, efficient local producers against heavily subsidized, ruthless foreign behemoths.
Looking at the bigger picture, it is at its heart a clash of ideologies. The predominant one says that bigger is better, that efficiencies of scale and getting someone else to pay to clean up your messes is OK, and relies on transporting goods over long distances. The other values quality over quantity, respects peoples’ rights and a clean environment, and prefers to access goods that are produced locally or regionally. The ecological health of the farm and farmland is directly tied to the economic well-being of the farmer. We just have to look at what happened to the land and particularly to fresh water in New Zealand to see what happens when dairy farmers strive to compete with the lowest-cost producers in the world.
In reaction to NAFTA 2.0, there was a large and boisterous rally that I and many others attended yesterday in Pooles Corner, and all over the place I see calls for Islanders to support our local dairy producers. All this heartens me, and it also indicates that deep down, we all know the importance and value of those businesses who utilise local resources, employ local people and have a strong sense of belonging to our community. None of that smacks of the ugly protectionism that I hear from some leaders: it is a commitment to support our neighbours, and to create the “more autonomous, diverse and resilient Island economy” I referenced in my previous blog.
Globalisation has altered our world, but not always for the better. On a finite and increasingly sick planet inhabited by a growing number of people consuming ever-increasing amounts of stuff, it is time to reassess whether carrying on down the established path of freer trade and ever-expanding consumption is in our collective best interests. Questioning what “progress” means is an enormously complex and profound question, but we must not shy away from having the conversation.