A Shortage of Butter: Not Good News for Dairy Farmers
This is a classic case of a loophole, big business capitalizing on any chance to improve the bottom line, and serious unintended consequences. The impact of what appeared to be a minor bureaucratic decision is being felt in Canadian kitchens, food processing plants, and disturbingly, could do serious economic damage to Canada’s dairy farmers.
A few years ago Federal officials were trying to decide where so called “protein isolates” would fit into the stiff tariff schedule that limits imports of cheaper dairy products like yogurt and cheese. These high tariffs maintain the integrity of Canada’s supply management system that tailors milk supply to Canadian demand using quotas, while assuring farmers a fair price. Protein isolates are essentially raw protein, like the whey protein used as a dietary supplement. Think of whole milk with the fat and minerals stripped out. The bureaucrats decided the isolates are a protein “substitute”, not necessarily a dairy product, so they come into Canada tariff-free. No one paid too much attention then, but slowly, over time, a trickle of cheaper protein isolates, almost all from the United States, has become a tidal wave. Now Canada’s largest dairy processors like Parmalat, Saputo, and Agropur, are helping their bottom line by using the cheaper protein in their cheeses and other dairy products. But there’s a wrinkle, the processors still need the fat from whole milk to mix with the raw imported protein to produce their cheeses. This is happening at the same time that dieticians and doctors are telling Canadians it’s OK to eat butter again. So over the last year butter, and butterfat, are again in big demand, and for some, short supply. Farmers nationally have stepped up production by more than 7% on a butterfat basis to meet the shortfall, but because there’s no additional demand for the protein in the whole milk (usually made into skim milk powder), farmers aren’t paid the full cost of production price for this additional milk, and a lot of the surplus skim milk is being dumped or fed to livestock.
That’s unfortunate, but the more serious impact I think is that it’s given the business media a fresh opportunity to attack supply management. “Supply management falls butter-side down” in the Globe and Mail, and “Supply management is expensive, irrational — and doomed” in i-Politics amongst others. What especially irritates me about these articles is that they blame dairy farmers (and always the articles are accompanied by shots of Holsteins) for lobbying to protect a “broken” system, when it’s large multi-national dairy processors that have created the problem. There’s no benefit flowing back to dairy farmers from the importation of this cheap protein (other than Quebec farmer-owned Agropur, shame on it. Parmalat is owned by a large Italian dairy, and Saputo by a Montreal family).
Here’s some better news. As Islanders, we can celebrate the fact that PEI’s dairies, ADL and Purity, do not use this imported protein. And let’s also enjoy the world recognition ADL cheeses have received recently: ADL, using a recipe from Cows, produces the Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar that won SuperGold at the World Cheese Awards in England in late November. And ADL’s own labeled cheddars won several awards at the British Empire Cheese Show in Ontario in mid-November. I’m not an expert, but maybe the fact that only PEI whole milk, rather than a tasteless imported protein isolate, is used to make these cheeses had something to do with these successes.
One more thing for consumers to watch for. There is a symbol:
that says 100% Canadian milk. That’s your guarantee too that there’s no imported protein in the dairy products.
Unfortunately for farmers the trade in protein isolates won’t end quickly. The U.S. dairy industry would launch a trade investigation before the ink was dry on any new government regulation trying to control it. The big multi-national dairies themselves are playing a game of economic chicken saying they’ll stop only if the others do. As well they’re getting ready for more competition from cheaper European cheeses if the big EU trade agreement is ever ratified. So consumers will have to step up if there’s going to be any solution. On PEI at least that’s easily done.
April 19, 2017
WASHINGTON—Holy cow, he’s now coming after us.
U.S. President Donald Trump slammed Canada’s trade practices for the first time, vowing to call Canadian officials to demand changes to dairy policies Wisconsin farmers say threaten their livelihoods.
“We are also going to stand up for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin. And I’ve been reading about it, I’ve been talking about it for a long time, and that demands, really, immediately, fair trade, with all of our trading partners. And that includes Canada,” he said Tuesday, raising his voice to emphasize the country.
“Because in Canada, some very unfair things have happened to our dairy farmers and others.”
He did not specifically identify what he was talking about in his unscripted musings, which came during a Wisconsin speech in which he touted “Buy American” policies that are opposed by Canada. It appeared, though, that he was weighing in on an arcane but escalating bilateral dispute over ultrafiltered milk, a high-protein concentrate sometimes used to make cheese and yogurt.
The Canadian dairy lobby and government say Canadian policies are not responsible for the crisis that has beset about 75 family farms in Wisconsin since a local milk-processing company cancelled their contracts April 1. But Trump joined the U.S. dairy lobby and a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers in attributing the problem to a Canadian reduction in prices that has made American imports less competitive.
His remarks were the latest in a series of signals that suggest Canada will not glide easily through the possible renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). After declaring in February that the trade relationship is “very outstanding,” his administration has floated a series of complaints.
Not until Tuesday had he called out Canada specifically.
“What’s happened to you is very, very unfair,” he told the farmers. “It’s another typical one-sided deal against the United States, and it’s not going to be happening for long. So . . . we’re going to get together and we’re going to call Canada, and we’re going to say ‘what happened?’ And they might give us an answer, but we’re going to get the solution, not just the answer, OK, because we know what the solution is, all right?”
He did not say what he believes the solution is.
Trump had been urged to take action on the dispute by politicians from both parties, including Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In an October letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Cuomo said the policy amounts to a trade barrier that flouts international agreements.
Trudeau’s government did not respond to Trump on Tuesday. Instead, Ambassador David MacNaughton wrote a letter to Walker and Cuomo, urging them to “not lay blame where it does not belong.”
MacNaughton said Canada “does not accept” the contention that dairy policies in Canada are causing financial hardship in the U.S. “The facts do not bear this out,” he wrote, citing a U.S. government report that says global and U.S. overproduction is the root of the U.S. dairy industry’s struggles.
“As made clear in the report, Canada is not a contributor to the overproduction problem,” MacNaughton said. He argued that Canada’s dairy industry is less protectionist than America’s.
Like most things related to Canada’s milk policy, the dispute is complicated.
At the beginning of April, Wisconsin’s Grassland Dairy Products informed 75 local farms that it would no longer purchase their milk. Grassland said it made the decision because it had just lost tens of millions of dollars worth of Canadian business as a result of the policy change in Canada.
The Canadian dairy industry, tightly regulated under a system of “supply management,” has long been protected from foreign competition by tariffs on imports. But ultrafiltered milk from the U.S. had been allowed to enter Canada tariff-free, and Canadian processors often preferred to import rather than pay higher prices to buy from Canadians.
A year ago, though, Ontario changed the rules: it allowed local processors to buy ultrafiltered milk and other kinds of skim milk from Canadian farms at world prices rather than the higher Canadian prices. All of a sudden, the need for U.S. imports evaporated.
Canada is now adopting a similar policy across the country, further alarming the U.S. industry already beset by a supply glut. In Wisconsin, some of the family farmers say they will have to sell off their cows if they can’t quickly find another processor.
The Canadian dairy industry says the entire issue has been misconstrued by the Americans. A spokesperson for the Dairy Farmers of Canada told the Washington Post in a front-page article Tuesday that the Wisconsin farmers were using inaccurate “alternative facts,” a phrase popularized by a Trump aide.
In the Canadian industry’s version, the real culprit for the U.S. woes isn’t Canadian policy but the U.S. supply glut.
“When too much milk is produced, prices crash and there is no incentive to invest in increased processing capacities. The end result is job loss, loss of income for farmers, and in some cases, farmers having to shut down their farms,” a Dairy Farmers of Canada official wrote in early April.
“No matter how one views the situation, exports to a comparatively small Canadian market — one that is already filled with Canadian milk — are a drop in the bucket that will not solve the problems currently impacting the U.S dairy industry. It is wrong to use Canada as a scapegoat for the situation in the United States.”
The Dairy Farmers declined to respond to Trump on Tuesday, referring questions to the Canadian government. A spokesperson said they are “very confident” Trudeau will “protect our industry.”
Trump has not criticized supply management more broadly. But in a draft letter to Congress that expressed a preliminary NAFTA wish list, his administration hinted that it wants to raise the subject during the upcoming talks.
Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday to crack down on exemptions to Buy American policies, which are supposed to require U.S. government projects to buy from American firms. Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau will raise objections to the order at this week’s meeting of G20 finance ministers in Washington, The Canadian Press reported.
With files from Bruce Campion-Smith