The Great Debate redux

The Great Debate. (Photo credit: Terry Aberhart)

For as long as we have a supply management system, there will be debates about whether or not we should keep it. The line between for and against is predictable: dairy, egg, chicken, and turkey farmers and those with collective-leaning politics want to keep it, non-supply-managed farmers and free-market thinkers want it gone.

Or so you might think. One-on-one and in person, that opinion and outlook for supply management is far more nuanced. A grain farmer from Western Canada doesn’t sit down next to a dairy farmer from Ontario and tell them, “I want you to lose your farm.” But, that same grain farmer, who must compete on an international stage, likely does want some form of change. Some farmers working within supply management recognize the incredible complexity of the system, and that, likely, it needs to change or adapt.

Related: Hey, dairy, what about the rest of us?

What most can agree on is that supply management serves its farmers and processors well. But any system that includes government involvement is controversial, complex, and creates disparity between those within and those without.

Which brings us to last week’s Great Debate over supply management at Farm Management Canada’s Agricultural Excellence Conference held at Ottawa, Ont.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University, and Dr. Bruce Muirhead, associate vice president, external research with the history department at the University of Waterloo, argued their points against and for, respectively, to a largely pro supply management audience. Perhaps surprisingly, Charlebois was much more moderate than many anticipated (and certainly more so than most columns he’s written on the topic). Muirhead, predictably, compared fluid milk prices in other countries who have moved away from supply management, claiming four litres of milk sits somewhere between $6 to $8.

Those who attended keen on challenging Charlebois were somewhat deflated by Charlebois’s call for adaptation and change on a 15 to 20 year timeline. There was no shortage of points to critique, however, as Charlebois did not mention any concrete steps to moving towards “supply management 2.0” as he calls it.

Muirhead, who works in the history department, as well as Charlebois, admitted that he hasn’t looked at how losing supply management would stress business risk management programs. Neither even mentioned trade, beyond referencing (U.S. president Donald) Trump. These, as I see it, are major failings of any debate around the future of supply management.

Because, I understand, as most certainly do, that part of why Canada holds so strongly to its supply management system is because of the looming economic and production powerhouse to the south. Essentially overnight, it’s been said, the U.S. egg industry could ramp up and service our entire market. I think we all understand that risk, but why do supply managed farmers deserve protection from this behemoth, but pork or beef farmers don’t? Why are dairy, egg, chicken, and turkey farmers entitled to a guaranteed larger slice of the consumer dollar than any other commodity? Simply: because Canada decides they do. That’s not about to change any time soon — the great debate continues.

Hear more: RealAg Radio, November 28: Infant formula, trade restrictions, and debating supply management

Wake up with RealAgriculture

Subscribe to our daily newsletters to keep you up-to-date with our latest coverage every morning.

Wake up with RealAgriculture