April 27, 2011

Farmers seek protection in trade deal with Europe

As published in The Erin Advocate

Do free trade deals allow big businesses to bully the small players in local economies? Or do they create jobs overall, promoting innovation and competitiveness? The answers depend on your political outlook, and the debate is heating up as negotiations continue for a Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

Some farmers are feeling vulnerable in this process, since the deal could virtually eliminate the age-old practice of saving, re-using and selling seeds. At the annual meeting of the Wellington & Waterloo local of the National Farmers Union (NFU) last month in Elora, National Women's President Joan Brady said she hoped CETA would become an election issue.

"It's all about Canadians' rights," she said. "For farmers, it's about intellectual property rights and the right to save seeds. For the public, it's about allowing access to water and local food."

It is no surprise, however, that free trade with Europe has not become an election issue. The 1988 federal election was fought over free trade with the U.S. While a majority of Canadians voted for anti-free trade parties, that support was split between the Liberals and New Democrats, and the Mulroney Conservatives scored a clear majority of seats.

Since then, most people seem to have accepted free trade as a fact of life. Fears over foreign domination, a branch plant economy, loss of jobs, the suing of our government by corporations whose interests have been hurt and the continued imposition of softwood lumber duties by the U.S., have not generated significant unrest. Still, opponents are raising similar concerns about CETA.

“We heard all these same arguments when we had the debate on free trade with the United States, and the result of that trade agreement has been outstandingly successful for Canada,” said International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan, in an Epoch Times article last fall, predicting CETA would mean a $12 billion boost for the Canadian economy.

“We’re looking to secure additional access for our farmers to European markets. That’s why there is strong support, for example, among Western grain farmers and beef farmers.”

In a recent press release, NFU National President Terry Boehm said the Europeans are demanding "extreme and offensive" intellectual property rights enforcement.

"The corporate-dominated European Commission is calling for court-sanctioned seizure of property and freezing of bank accounts for alleged infringement of a patent. Any farmer unfortunate enough to be accused of having a patented gene in his/her crop or seed, could see their farm, equipment, grain and crops seized even before they had their day in court. We cannot allow this to happen."

With CETA, Canada would be the only developed economy to have trade agreements with both the U.S. and the EU, the two biggest economies in the world. Unlike the North American deal, however, CETA would reach down to the municipal level, and would disallow governments, schools, hospitals, universities and public utilities from favouring local or Canadian suppliers for contracts, over relatively low thresholds.

Supporters say Canadian firms would benefit from bidding on contracts in Europe, something they could not do in the U.S. during the recent Buy American stimulus funding.

Critics claim CETA could lead to privatization or foreign ownership of public water systems, health care and telecommunications, and undermine environmental protection and the rights of workers. Brent Bouteiller of the Green Party, at the federal election Candidate's Night held in Erin recently, said "fair trade" should be the priority, with protection for water and health care.

"We cannot have situations where one industry bullies another industry, on either side," he said. "We want to make sure that our local communities are resilient to economic activities in other parts of the world."

Barry Peters of the Liberal Party said Canadians should not be afraid to enter trade agreements, but said there should be protection for farmers and small businesses.

"Small businesses are part of the negotiations, but what is not part of the discussion is the protection of our supply management system," said Conservative incumbent Michael Chong. "We will continue to protect our dairy, egg, chicken and turkey farmers from foreign competition. The other aspects of the Canadian economy, outside of telecommunications, cultural sectors and banks, are included in these discussions, and that will include small businesses in other sectors.

"Those businesses I think will benefit from free trade...Unlike trade deals with developing countries, the European Union often has equivalent or higher environmental, health and safety standards than what we have here in Canada. So I think this is an excellent way to liberalize trade, while ensuring that Canada's domestic industries remain competitive. We'd be going toe-to-toe with industries that have very similar rules for protection of workers and the environment.

"I think this is an excellent way to expand global trade and to ensure wealth creation back here at home."

For more information on the concerns of organized labour and environmental activists, go to www.tradejustice.ca. For the government's website, search: CETA Canada EU.