Commentary by Paul Meinema, National President
United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Canada)
Ottawa – September 14, 2018 – If ultra-conservative politicians and pundits had their way, we’d all be cheesed off at Canada’s supply management system. They would have Canadians believe that milk in the Great White North is a rip-off, and the only way to “fix” our dairy supply system is to trade it in for something more akin to a model used south of the border.
But the unpasteurized truth is that supply management is a good thing. It protects Canadian food sovereignty, the national food supply, and, yes, the interests of consumers, who are also tax payers, workers, farmers, and the beneficiaries of universal services like healthcare.
The critics, in trying to sour Canada’s dairy system, claim that the retail cost of milk is a lot more in Canada than it is in countries with deregulated dairy markets like the United States. When telling us that, the critics rarely - if ever - acknowledge that Americans pay twice for the same carton of milk. They pay once at the grocery store as consumers, and then they pay again as tax payers.
That’s because American dairy farmers have come to rely on tax dollars to survive. In fact, American dairy farmers receive more than $4-billion in public subsidies every year. It’s a lot of money that could be used for healthcare, education, retirement security, and childcare.
The Canadian government, on the other hand, spends no money on dairy subsidies.
And if we take the argument head on, cost differences at the grocery store are not what the detractors would have us believe. According to a recent Nielsen report, the average price for cheddar cheese in Canada is $13.98/kg (2017), slightly lower than the American average of $14.81/kg. It’s the same story for butter, $9.34/kg in Canada while Americans pay an average of $10.77/kg. And as far as milk goes, Canadian paid between $4.00 to $6.00 for a four-litre bag last year, while Americans paid $1.12 a litre ($1.64 if they seek ‘rbGH-free’ labelled milk).
And in China, New Zealand and Australia, consumers pay $2.58, $1.83, $1.57 per litre for milk respectively.
In addition to saving us money as Canadian citizens and residents, our dairy system also makes a massive contribution to our economy. In seven of 10 provinces, dairy is one of the top two agricultural industries, and overall, the dairy sector contributes more than $20-billion annually to Canada’s GDP.
And as the leader of Canada’s food workers’ union, I can tell you that the dairy sector provides good jobs to more than 220,000 hard-working people across the country. Many of those folks are proud union members, with strong wages and benefits, who spend their earnings at small businesses in their local communities.
But this is more than an economic argument. Our sovereignty as a country is also at stake here. Because of ultra-conservative ideology, we’ve already lost key infrastructure – like highways – to foreign consortiums based in Europe. We allowed the Harper Conservatives to meekly sit on the sidelines as private interests based in Brazil took our nickel mines. Ask yourself: would the Americans sell their mines to a foreign power?
We cannot allow another important national resource, this time our dairy sector, to be weakened or lost because of reckless ideology. And if the supply management system is undermined for dairy, then the poultry sector will certainly be next.
As Canadians, our food system is our greatest resource, and we cannot allow ideologues and professional blusterers to play chicken with our dairy sector. Now, more than ever, is the time for us to send a strong message to the Canadian government and its NAFTA negotiators that our dairy sector is not up for grabs.
Paul Meinema is the national president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW Canada, www.ufcw.ca), representing more than a quarter-of-a-million workers in every aspect of the food chain, as well as healthcare, security, and other key economic sectors across Canada.