Trade Issues Just Part of the Cattle and Beef Industry

By Will Verboven, Contributing Editor

For almost two decades the patient publisher of this honorable publication has allowed me to expound and vent on various cattle and beef trade-related issues. At times I have noted the unfairness of some U.S. trade and import regulations that, from a Canadian perspective, were restrictive and discriminatory. Notwithstanding, the United States has every right to manage imports as it sees fit. However, it does become exasperating when regulations are implemented that the cattle and beef industries on both sides of the border oppose, such as Country of Origin labeling. Thankfully, that issue has been put to rest under the revised Canada/USA/Mexico free trade agreement.

I tend to look at North American meat trade issues more from the perspective as to how they will increase beef consumption on this continent. I understand trade issues have a price and market access component that is important, but when beef continues to lose its share of consumer meat purchases, there are much bigger concerns that our beef industry needs to worry about.

Creating border import restrictions is not going to stop declining beef consumption or the threat of fake meat products. The fallout from trade mischief is that it costs hundreds of millions of dollars that could have gone into producers’ pockets on both sides of the border. Chicken meat producers must be laughing all the way to the bank. Fortunately, most cattle producers are market savvy enough to understand that free trade in cattle and beef between our two countries serves us all quite well.

The problem that is so glaringly obvious is that our North American concept of free trade in beef is almost never shared by offshore countries. International meat trade is more often used as a political and economic blackmail weapon to extract concessions in trade agreements and disputes. For instance, Canada was notorious in caving to beef trade concessions in its free trade agreements with the European Union (EU) and the Trans-Pacific trading group of countries. I cite import quotas, and unscientific hormone and dubious sanitary import restrictions.

It’s heartening to see that the position of the present U.S. government is that such meat trade concessions will not be part of any free trade discussions with the European Union. The EU, recognizing that the Trump administration will not capitulate to bogus non-tariff barriers, has taken agriculture completely off the discussion table. I suggest that confirms the EU’s devious manipulative tactics when it comes to the beef trade. That has essentially stalled the process.

One wishes Canadian free-trade negotiators had the same guts to stand up to treacherous EU trade tactics. The result has been that even though Canada negotiated increased beef access quota to the EU market under the new free trade agreement, conniving protocol processes by EU bureaucrats has basically thwarted any additional significant Canadian beef exports to the EU. Its not just the EU either.

Last year, for a six-month period, China banned all Canadian pork and beef imports over a diplomatic issue that had nothing to do with agriculture. The U.S. is no stranger to such nefarious Chinese tactics where meat gets caught in the trade war crossfire. But unlike Canada, which has no choice but to take abuse from China and the EU, the U.S. can and does bite back in a significant way.

One ponders why beef is usually a central part of many trade disputes and free trade discussions. I expect it’s because beef is the Cadillac of meats and gets instant media attention no matter what the issue. The reality for producers is that fallout from export beef trade politics is just part of the consequences of doing business. The best outcome for Canadian beef producers would be to become part of a North American trading bloc similar to the EU. That would be a formidable international trade entity, but alas the United States doesn’t need Canada in its overall global trading interests. Besides, the present Canadian government in power has almost no agricultural voting base anywhere in Canada. That means their interest in agriculture, never mind the beef trade business, is very limited to none.

I would suggest that for both countries, our producer and export organizations continue to do what they can to facilitate and increase the offshore beef export business. Perhaps they could even seek out ways to cooperate and consolidate their international marketing efforts – after all we essentially produce the same beef products. But with all due respect, as admirable as more beef export trade is, we need (to paraphrase an old political slogan) “more beef consumption stupid!” God bless the cattle and beef business. We could use some divine intervention.