Canada/China: Canola, pork, fake meat and who knows what else?

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Over my career, I’ve seen more than a few things happen which I never expected. So when the Beyond Meat’s stock market value topped $3 billion recently on the stock market, it was just another day. Never could I have  imagined a day a few years ago when ‘fake meat’ would be all the rage.  However, here we are, a few years after I heard about it, and plant-based protein ‘fake meat’ is a billion-dollar business.

‘Fake meat’ has the potential to really shake up our agricultural economy. However, for the moment I think it will remain a niche product, with Big Grocery set on charging exorbitant prices for such a nouveau product. It will take some time for fake meat to be commoditized, but eventually it will get there. The problem will be to make it cheap enough and get that taste right too. 

When I started writing this column 33 years ago, I couldn’t even imagine a time when I’d be thinking that cattle, pigs, poultry and sheep could be replaced by a manufactured product. Albeit, fake meat is made mostly from peas. 

Fast forward for a minute to the white-hot agricultural issues of the day happening in Canada.  Earlier in May we learned that China has stopped buying pork products from two of Canada’s largest pork exporters. This includes Quebec-based Olymel a direct hit on Canada’s Agriculture Minister Marie Claude Bibeau’s home province. The official reason is labeling. However, that’s unlikely especially in light of what has happened since Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, CFO of Huawei on the request of the American government.

Of course this is happening after the canola debacle, where China has stopped buying, citing quality concerns. It is all a huge problem, which I didn’t quite foresee. How would I ever know the arrest of a Chinese executive on an American extradition order would cause such widespread damage to the Canadian agricultural economy?

In many ways, we took the Chinese market for granted, thinking cheap and plentiful would always satisfy their voracious appetite for Canadian product.

China’s demand recoiling started in the United States, when they enacted 25 per cent tariffs on American soybeans, sending that market into a funk, which it has never recovered from since last July.  It’s continually being reported that a new US/China trade agreement is near. However, in its latest iteration, Chinese President Xi is set to visit the White House in June before the G20 summit. 

This will set up the bizarre scenario where President Trump could cast Canada adrift by making a deal with the Chinese without settling the Meng Wanzhou issue. That essentially would leave our agricultural problems intact with the Chinese, while Weng waits for American extradition. However, if Trump settles that issue at the same time, it opens the pathway for China, the US and Canada to clear our agricultural trade hurdles. 

In my dreams, it would be hard to imagine all of this, even harder to imagine a neat solution all solved in Washington. It would seem a bit of a panacea especially with innocent Canadians being held against their will in Chinese prisons. 

Could you imagine a world where the Canadian government looked the other way as Meng Wanzhou boarded that plane in Vancouver to Asia earlier this year? We surely wouldn’t be talking about canola and hogs and who knows what else might be coming down the pipe.

International Trade Minister Jim Carr calls this a rough patch. Oh yeah, that’s for sure and one nobody saw coming until it was all too late.

This past week, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau increased the amount of money available under the Advanced Payments Program from $400,000, to $1,000,0000. For canola farmers, the interest free portion has been increased to $500,000 from $100,000.

So we soldier on into troubled times. This is such uncharted water. Canada has no quarrel with China. Unfortunately, China now has a quarrel with us. It all happened so easily, without trying. Canola, pork, and who knows what tomorrow. 

Phil Shaw