China Ban on Canola Falls in Trump’s Lap

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Let me see if I understand this ridiculous China-canola-Canada-U.S.-Iran mess correctly.

In December, President Donald Trump got cranky at the massive Chinese technology firm Huawei. Cranky enough that the company’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada at Vancouver Airport at the request of his government. 

This seemed very weird to me, since he and Chinese President Xi Jinping had just signed off on a 90-day truce in their trade war, but whatever. You often have to say whatever when it comes to Trump.

So he was mad because Meng apparently misled certain banks about a Huawei-controlled company in Iran. The accusation is that she has put those banks at risk of violating American sanctions; and America is also, of course, on the outs with Iran. Perhaps rightly so.

Meanwhile, Trump crowed that the Chinese were buying “tremendous” amounts of American soybeans, so it’s all good. That remains up for verification. 

The Canadian government, meanwhile, a) had Meng arrested back last year and b) announced an extradition hearing would indeed take place. That was March 1.

On March 5, a meagre four days later, it came to light that China had revoked a certain shipping permit held by Richardson International, a family-owned Winnipeg company of long history and repute. No more canola, China said. There be critters in there. 

Note, here, that our new Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has investigated canola samples nine times — nine — since January, after China issued notices of non-compliance. No critters, whether pests or bacteria, were found. 

China takes 40 to 45 per cent or $2.5 billion worth of Canada’s canola crop, the oilseed named for, well, Canada. The “ola” is simply the attachment many oils use, like, you know, Mazola. Canola was created by removing erucic acid from rapeseed (and other refinements) by Keith Downey at our own University of Saskatchewan and Baldur Stefansson at the U of Manitoba in the 1970s. It doesn’t get more Canadian.

And Richardson exports a massive proportion of our national oilseed, largely grown right around here. Jean-Marc Ruest, the company’s vice-president of corporate affairs, described China’s action in the Globe and Mail as an attack on Canada and its agriculture industry.

 “The timing suggests it’s something much greater than a quality issue that pertains to Richardson,” he said. 

Well, no kidding. Although he had to say it that way, of course. He’s a VP of corporate affairs.

So, somehow we got from President Trump alleging that a Chinese businessperson was messing with Iranian sanctions to our farmers getting kicked in the teeth. Hard. (Disclosure: I am a mini farmer.)

There’s more than one way to wage a war, no? 

To say that the agriculture community is upset is the understatement of year-to-date 2019. Anyone with canola in this year’s rotation is going to be seriously stuck. You can’t just decide to plant something else, at least not easily. Farmers set their rotations to manage not just the land and its nutrients, but also to keep pests and diseases at bay. Wheat, canola and pulses tend to attract different beasties, harbour different diseases, and take away from or contribute different things (like nitrogen, for pulses) to the soil.

It’s going to be hard to shift gears this late in the game, if the issue isn’t resolved, and should the predictable thing happen to canola prices. 

What will China do? I assume it will buy American soybeans, as Trump has crowed about (see above). Even I, Donald loather that I am, doubt that the canola fiasco was planned or foreseen by this POTUS; I don’t think he’s smart enough. 

Meanwhile, farmers are taking a bizarre and unfair geopolitical smack on the chin and to the pocketbook. Again. Have they not absorbed enough trade war stupidity — like, for example, the country of origin labelling in the U.S., which put Canadian beef at a disadvantage? The Canadian Wheat Board (now defunct) challenges? And are they not lining up behind oil and potash on a regular basis when rail shipping time rolls around? It’s always something. 

Should our own government have seen this canola permit revocation coming? I can’t see how, I admit. Should Canada have engaged in the extradition of Meng Wanzhou to the U.S., knowing, I’m sure, that China would find a way to retaliate? Do we really have a choice, based on our agreements with the U.S.?

I’m really, really searching for someone to blame. And I think it falls at the feet of the American president. Again.

I can only hold on to hope that our new ag minister, and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland — who has actually swathed canola on her family farm — find our farmers a way out of this mess.