PHOTOS: A field of canola at its most colourful, photographed in early August near Morinville, Alberta. Below: Farmer Ken Larsen, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland and Harper-era agriculture minister Gerry Ritz.

According to the Globe and Mail, or at least one of the five apparently like-minded individuals interviewed recently by the newspaper’s “national food reporter,” the Chinese government’s concerns about the quality of Canadian canola seed is “simply a political trade issue that the Chinese have chosen to push forward. It’s not based on science.”

Everyone the Globe talked to told pretty much the same story … a little bit of blackleg fungus is no big deal, the Chinese are being unreasonable, the science hasn’t changed, there’s a big canola crop in China this year, “there’s no reason to tighten the criteria,” and so on. Reports in other general-interest news publications mostly had the same tone.

If you think about it, this is a fairly insulting thing to say about the Chinese, who in fact have legitimate concerns about the quality of the canola that’s being shipped to them from Canada.

But, face it, most Canadians – including avid readers of political news – seldom pay much attention to the agricultural sector, even when it comes to an important crop like the Canadian-developed oilseed with distinctive flowers that turns many fields around Western Canadian cities bright yellow for a few days each summer and generates almost $2 billion for Canadian farmers while creating more than a quarter million Western Canadian jobs every year.

Anyway – perhaps thanks to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s efforts on his recent trip to China – the Chinese have reluctantly signed on to an “interim agreement” to put off requiring Canadian oilseed producers meet new and higher standards for their canola seed. So readers can expect all news coverage outside specialty agricultural publications to stop until the Chinese remind us this is an interim deal, and we hear the same accusations about their motives all over again.

Just the same, there’s more to this story than a major importer’s intransigent search for a better deal, or the percentage of “dockage” – that is, dirt, straw, seed pods and other crap, some of it infected with fungus, which the Chinese want limited to 1 per cent – that finds its way into Canadian canola seeds bound for export.

In fact, the problem has its roots in Western Canadian politics – specifically, the free-market fanaticism of the former Harper Government.

As the estimable Ken Larsen of the Canadian Wheat Board Alliance put it in a recent blog post, “how would you feel if you bought a thousand grams of rice to feed your family and found 25 grams of the bag made up of weed seeds, stems and chaff?”

Let’s imagine the rice came from China and, when you complained to the store, the president of China issued a statement saying your demands for clean food would have to wait, and the retailer told you your concerns were unscientific and you were an ignoramus.

“Most reasonable people would be astounded and offended,” Mr. Larsen wrote. “Yet this is exactly what has happened on the issue of canola sales during the Prime Minister’s visit to China.”

The CWB Alliance is a farm organization set up to try to save the collectively owned marketing board for Western Canadian wheat and barley, established by Act of Parliament in 1935, when the Harper government decided it didn’t jibe with its idea of corporate “economic freedom.” That effort failed. In 2012, the Harper Government seized the CWB’s farmer-owned assets and sold them off for a song to Saudi and American corporate interests. So you might want to dismiss the views of Mr. Larsen, who farms near Sylvan Lake.

Still, while the CWB didn’t market canola, his argument that many of the problems Canadian canola producers are experiencing have their origins in the general attitudes about the best way to run an agriculture industry held by the market-fundamentalist the Harper Government is credible. And while the Harper Government is mercifully gone, some of its sympathetic bureaucrats linger in the federal bureaucracy to whisper bad advice in Mr. Trudeau’s ear.

According to various sources, before Mr. Harper and his agriculture minister, Gerry Ritz, fired the impartial government inspectors of the Canadian Grain Commission, the federal agency responsible for overseeing regulation of the grain handling industry, their inspections found most of the crops in rail cars, including canola, came in with less than 2 per cent weed seeds and other foreign material.

The Manitoba Cooperator says “the ‘dirty little secret’ of Canada’s grain export system is that dockage is routinely added back into the cargo holds to bring levels back up to near the maximum 2.5 per cent allowed for commercially cleaned grain.”

“The Canadian Grain Commission measures dockage in increments of .1 per cent,” the Cooperator reported last week. “The commission’s statistics for dockage in canola during the crop year just past averaged below 2 per cent.” (Emphasis added in both paragraphs.)

Surely this practice only makes sense because it allows private-sector companies of the type favoured by Mr. Harper and Mr. Ritz to charge canola farmers for cleaning their seeds – which were already clean when the farmers bought them in.

Added to the extraneous junk that was fed back into the canola by commercial resellers are the plant diseases our Chinese customers don’t want getting into their crops.

According to Mr. Larsen, farmer funded but industry dominated crop groups have adopted the time-honoured strategy of blaming the customer, in this case China. These are the groups that find the experts to be interviewed by city dwelling mainstream media reporters, who then feed us the line that this is all about the sharp business practices and the politics of our customers.

Well, even if that were true – and in this case it’s not – whatever happened to the notion “the customer is always right”?

Right now, China buys 40 per cent of Canada’s export canola crop. Nowadays, though, the oilseed we created is grown all over the world. For example, it’s also one of Australia’s largest crops.

So here’s something for the prime minister and his International Trade Minister, Chrystia Freeland, to think about: If we don’t give this big customer what it wants so we can help pad the bottom lines of the multinational “agri-food” corporations that were given a leg up by Mr. Harper, what do you think China is going to do?

And even if the Chinese are wrong, as former Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade official Hugh Stephens reminded us in recent commentary in the Vancouver Sun: “They are our largest customer. Perhaps we should listen to them.”

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  1. Great post David. I find it amazing how often the idea of “the customer is always right” vanishes from Canadian agriculture as soon as the customer demands a better product – just look at the recent flap over Earl’s wanting hormone free beef. It seems like about the only ones interested in working to make sure the customer got what they wanted were the Wheat and Fresh Water Fish boards.

  2. One correction Dave, China is 40% percent of our export market not 40% of our market. I believe we crush half of the canola produced in Canada. Therefore China represents 20% of our market, still a significant amount. As a farmer who grows canola, the attitude of the industry seems confusing. When I sell canola my dockage is usually between 1 and 2 percent. It would seem cleaning it to 1% dockage is doable. I suspect it is more about the grain companies getting payed for the 2.5% foreign material that was essentially free. Nothing to do with science. As a farmer I strive to grow and sell the cleanest product possible. Enjoy your day:-)

  3. I’m not quite clear on this; they add crap to the canola why? So they can charge farmers a cleaning fee? Or just to bulk up a shipment so the customer is paying for more than they actually get?

      1. Well, I guess they would fit in as many scams as they could manage; but with both they would get clean canola from the farmers, add dockage so they could clean it and charge the farmers, then add dockage again to bulk it up when shipped to the customer.

        Or they don’t clean it, so they are defrauding the farmers by charging for a process they don’t carry out, then defraudng the customer by in effect adding a thumb to the scale.

  4. My question is, why are we selling unprocessed seed to China in the first place? Why don’t we keep value-added production, and the jobs that go with it, at home, and export just the oil and other finished products? It’s the same question many ask about dilbit pipelines to “tidewater”…

    1. Guess Dave didn’t have an answer! Shocking!
      Dave knows everything. Most communists do you know.
      First they find fault with farmers who own land then through rigorous years of propaganda convince their followers that the only good farmer is a “cooperative” farmer.
      Then the land expropriation occurs. All of course democratically supported. Usually by ignorant unions and urbanites, envirocults and indigenous groups or whoever else cries the most and needs a war..
      Classic Far-left game of cards.Happened before still happens today. Check out Zimbabwe and their farmers.
      We don’t care if China is insulted. With China’s horrific environmental records of water and air contamination not to mention basic human rights, they are worried about our canola. China who exports billions of dollars of questionable cheap food into Canada every year! Just so Canadian importers can get rich. Ever been to an Asian grocery or a dollar store and looked at the food labels? Even our Eastcoast fisheries sold out to Chinese i.e.: Highliner Fish processed in China!
      Are you totally insane and desperate to make a connection to the CWB story that you dis my farm family and our community. We pay for everything to produce a product for people and for this ungrateful country. We’ve physically worked harder than you could with your fat ass in the next 100 years! We pay to ship it out of the country, cleaning, growing, modernizing, being adaptable and innovative, and taxed for it so you can afford to write this crap. We have been farming for nearly 90 years not because we are stupid. So get over yourself.

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