Blindsided by a trade dispute that has shut the door to a growing export market, livestock farmers in Southwestern Ontario are bracing for a hit to their bottom line.
China’s ban on Canadian meat products adds to the woes of area farmers contending with a chilly, wet spring and the growing popularity of plant-based proteins.
“(The ban) is one more stress factor,” said Dale Pallister, who runs a large beef operation in Grey County. “It does bother people. There’s no use in me saying it doesn’t bother me, because it does.”
Citing fraudulent inspection reports, China banned imports of Canadian meat products on June 25, further straining relations between the two countries following Canada’s detention seven months ago of a high-tech Chinese business executive at the request of the United States.
The stakes for beef and pork farmers in Southwestern Ontario – the province’s largest producer of both commodities – are high.
China is Canada’s third largest export market for pork and fifth largest for beef, Statistics Canada says, and sales had been soaring before the ban last month.
Canadian producers exported 146 million kilograms of pork to China in the first four months of 2019, an 80 per cent increase from the same period last year when 95 million kilograms was shipped, Statistics Canada says.
Patti Negrave, deputy director for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said 30 per cent of Canada’s pork exports to China come from Ontario – with more than half from the province’s southwest.
Stewart Skinner, a Perth County pork farmer who sells 25,000 pigs a year, said the impact of the Chinese ban will filter down to pork farmers.
“At the farm level, we’re selling pigs, not pork. If the processor can’t move the pork, it stretches down the line,” he said. “Eventually, it will filter down to the farm gates.”
Canadian pork exports to China had been experiencing a boon since August 2018, when African Swine Fever, a highly infectious and deadly viral disease without vaccine or cure, began decimating large portions of Southeast Asia’s pork populations.
Perth County is the second-largest producer of hogs among Ontario counties.
“We’re heavily dependent on our export market – Canada exports about 70 per cent of its pork – and China’s been one of our most important markers for a while,” Skinner said.
“Any time you lose access to a key market, it’s not good. It’s definitely concerning.”
Rob Lipsett, who raises cattle on a farm northeast of Owen Sound, said the Chinese market represented 2.6 per cent of Canada’s beef exports last year and that number was beginning to grow.
“As China is a relatively new market for Canadian beef, we are concerned with how this plays out in the future,” said Lipsett, a vice-president of the Beef Farmers of Ontario and member of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association board of directors.
He’s been attending Canadian Cattlemen Association meetings in Calgary that he said have been mainly focused on the Chinese ban.
Scott Kuhl, manager of the Keady Livestock Market southwest of Owen Sound, said he has been hearing concern from area beef and pork producers about the Chinese ban on Canadian meat that likely already is affecting local prices.
The cost for dressed beef has dropped by five to eight cents a pound in the last week alone, he said.
“That’s what we think it’s because of. We’re not 100 per cent sure, but that’s what it’s looking like because there’s so much uncertainty.”
The Chinese ban on meat is likely part of a growing trade spat with Canada that began in December when Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, a high-ranking Huawei official, at the request of the U.S. government that wants to extradite her to face fraud charges, a political scientist said.
“There has to be more to the (ban) than we know,” said Grace Skogstad, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. “When you get these issues that are linked the way Huawei and the pork industry are, it’s really a challenge for Canada.”
“We’re in this limbo where the United States is failing to act and we’re effectively aiding and abetting them. It’s hurting us in ways we didn’t expect.”
But Conservative MP Larry Miller said the federal Liberals need to do more to protect the livelihoods of Canadian farmers caught in the trade crossfire, saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is allowing China “to walk all over” Canadian producers.
“There are other things that we can do to punish China and I think he should be seeking out and finding those things. Tit for tat,” said Miller, who represents the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound.
In response to Miller’s comments, Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, said the federal government takes the issue with China “very seriously” and will “continue to stand-up for Canada’s entire agricultural sector.”
The government is “working around the clock” to investigate the suspect Canadian certificates that sparked the Chinese ban and is in daily contact with Chinese authorities in order to resolve the issue, she said.