Canada Braces for Influx of Wheat from the US Free-Trade Provision Likely to Kick in Soon; Canadians Are Wary
Scott Pendleton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
CANADA, the world's second leading wheat exporter, faces the imminent and unwelcome prospect of wheat imports from the United States.
This is the latest complication arising from the free-trade agreement between the US and Canada, which began to take effect at the start of 1989.
Canada's decades-old barrier to imported wheat could be removed as early as next month. This would allow low-cost imports of US wheat, flour, and baked goods to engage Canada's own production in a costly battle for market share, adding another burden to the country's already struggling agriculture sector.
"Maybe we should look for a way to get out" of the free-trade agreement, says Charlie Swanson, president of the Manitoba Pool Elevators, a grain-elevator cooperative.
Wheat provides one-third of Canada's farm cash receipts. Farmers there grow five times as much as their domestic market can use. The rest goes to the international market.
The world's granaries, however, are bursting. Prices have plummeted. In the US, the January wheat price average was the lowest in 19 years.
But trouble for Canadian farmers started in 1985, when the US began subsidizing exports in answer to European export subsidies that were driving world prices down. The export subsidy issue has helped stall a new round of trade negotiations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
In Saskatchewan, where two-thirds of Canada's wheat is grown, farm income has plunged 80 percent since 1985. One in five farmers in the province is in danger of foreclosure, says Verna Mitura, an economist at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool.
"I wouldn't view (wheat imports) as the final disaster," says Mr. Swanson, "but one more thorn in the side of Canadian farmers."
When it signed the free-trade agreement in 1988, Ottawa was wary of competition from US grain, which historically had received a 20 percent greater subsidy. So it retained the right to require import licenses on US wheat, flour, and baked wheat products.
"Not one license has been granted. Not one grain of US wheat has gone to Canada since free trade was signed," growls Susan Miller of US Wheat Associates, the industry's export-development arm. Canada did allow imports of $10.8 million worth of products like crackers and noodles last year, up from $6 million in 1989.
In contrast, Canadian wheat and products have always had free access to the US market. …