Debunking myths about supply management

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Too often, particularly when supply management is the issue, the facts get discarded in place of an unsupported rant that meets a particular journalist’s bias.

Recently, and once again, Canada’s dairy system was narrowly portrayed in a subjective commentary that selectively reported on one comment from a long speech delivered at an agricultural conference. Globe and Mail columnist Barrie McKenna’s well-placed sentence leaves the inaccurate impression that the speech and comment received a “standing ovation.”

He is only partially right. The comment on supply management itself received a trickle of applause from the audience.

Mr. McKenna cites supply management as a barrier to free trade, but he fails to acknowledge the fact that, since 2006, Canada has concluded trade agreements with 38 countries, which brings our international trade agreements to 43, while maintaining the dairy system.

The facts are clear: Supply management is not an impediment to Canada’s trade agenda. Mr. McKenna relies on statistics about the retail price of Canadian dairy products that have been consistently debunked. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the store price of milk varies from region to region and store to store, based on what retailers – not farmers and certainly not supply management – feel is an appropriate final price. Milk costs between $1-$1.50 a litre in Canada, depending on where you shop and what format you buy. American consumers also pay similar prices – it may be sometimes lower in border towns that want to attract Canadians, but the further south you travel, the more likely you are to find milk prices similar to what we pay in Canada.

Mr. McKenna also refuses to recognize – or inform his readers – that American consumers are paying for their milk and dairy products twice. They pay the retail price, and they also pay through their taxes as American dairy farms are subsidized by the government.

No government subsidies exist for Canadian dairy farmers, nor do we want any.

Perhaps Mr. McKenna wants to hold up New Zealand as an example of an unregulated dairy market setting an example for Canadians to follow. But here are the facts. New Zealand dairy farmers are paid less for their milk than Canadian dairy farmers, but New Zealand consumers pay more at the checkout than their Canadian counterparts. Is that the kind of system we want?

Canadian dairy farmers – and other Canadians – say no. A good number of surveys have repeatedly found Canadians are willing to pay more for safe, fresh local food. A recent study from the University of Guelph shows that for the second year in a row, dairy products are the only category where prices are decreasing – unlike the story unfolding in other countries.

I agree with the description of supply management as an anchor for the Canadian economy – an anchor that provides stability or confidence in an otherwise uncertain situation. Dairy farmers were liberated when supply management was implemented – it continues to enable farmers to plan production, invest in their farm business, drive innovation, support local jobs and care for their animals; all while the costs of producing quality Canadian milk are covered by the marketplace.

These are the facts. And they tell a pretty good story.

Wally Smith is a B.C. dairy farmer and president, Dairy Farmers of Canada.