CHARLEBOIS: Food geopolitics is more important than ever

“Some experts suggest that Cold War II is upon us, which means food geopolitics will become much more complicated and less predictable.”

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That’s why China expelled a Canadian diplomat shortly after we did the same thing to one of them over suspicions that some of our elected officials had received threats. Politics of betraying each other is nothing new, especially when dealing with China.

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Many commodity groups are concerned about Canada’s deteriorating relationship with China, fearing they could become entangled in the same way as other segments of the agricultural sector, when China previously used trade as a means of punishing Canada.

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Do you remember 2018? In December of the same year, Canadian authorities arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and extradited him to the United States. China responded by arresting two Canadians and commuting a third Canadian’s drug smuggling sentence to the death penalty. Ottawa has raised serious concerns about China’s actions, but agriculture has not been spared either, as trade between China and Canada has slowed significantly. Canadian exporters had to find other ways to get to China. This time, who knows? Lobster, canola, wheat, pork, beef, Tim Hortons with now more than 800 stores – the list of possibilities is long.

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Some experts believe that this was the moment that Cold War II began and that it will continue for a while, perhaps as long as the last one. Canada must be prepared for this. Unlike the First Cold War, since we now have massive economic interdependence between nations, agricultural and food trade can be used as a weapon. It’s now much, much easier to know more about your enemy. Our economies have enabled open access to people and data. That’s not reassuring at all.

According to Farm Credit Canada, crustaceans such as lobster, crab and shrimp were Canada’s third-largest agricultural export to China last year, after canola and wheat, valued at over $1 billion. Canada’s more than $8 billion worth of agricultural and food products have been consumed by China, which happens to be Canada’s second largest export market. In contrast to numerous other trading partners, exports to China have risen steadily and have not been affected by the global economic crisis. But this relationship now also brings with it considerable diplomatic baggage. Canada essentially feeds China, and has for a number of decades. But China has also grown and increased its ability to feed itself. As a control-obsessed nation, China will not hesitate to compromise its own food security to take a stand. But food insecurity is far less of a problem today than it was a few years ago. China is now able to produce many raw materials itself.

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Although China has less than 10% of the world’s arable land available for cultivation, it manages to produce a quarter of the world’s grain and feed a fifth of the world’s population. China’s agricultural production is the largest in the world, yet only 10% of the total land area can be used for agriculture. And the country is becoming more and more efficient. Pig farms are currently being built that can produce a million pigs a year. China has more opportunities than ever before.

Some may argue that China is not worthy of our democracy and such a relationship is unjustified. It’s hard to argue with that. Still, making a statement now will always draw a reaction, and China is in a powerful position to hurt many nations through trade sanctions.

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Global food geopolitics is not what it used to be. During the first Cold War, you simply chose sides. Canada chose the team that ended up winning. With the Second Cold War, China is on the march against the ailing United States, along with Europe, South America, the Middle East and everything else in between, including Canada. It is not so easy.

To side with the US this time carries great risks. Canada’s relationship and proximity to the United States poses a growing concern for our country, regardless of who is in power: Trump, Biden, or anyone else. Many agri-food trade groups such as the Lobster Council of Canada, the Canadian Meat Council, and The Canola Council are fully aware that things are at stake and have already made efforts to open up new markets in Asia Pacific. Ottawa has just opened an office in the region to do just that. India is certainly an underdeveloped market for Canada. A greater variety of export markets beyond the US and China is more important than ever. Canada now exports over $85 billion worth of agri-food products annually, supporting our economy. That cannot be emphasized enough.

The days of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s love affair with China in the 1970s are long gone. The world has changed. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure is expected to outlast many US presidents and prime ministers. The “America buys while China sells” paradigm ends as China is no longer cheap and an afterthought; it aims to dominate. With significant American debt and control of many parts of Africa, a new world order is in full swing.


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