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Politicians want more competition but supply management still a 'sacred cow'



Amidst the often polarized landscape of Canadian politics, one issue stands out for its rare unity: the support for the supply management system governing egg, poultry, and dairy products. This framework, which establishes prices for producers, has enjoyed bipartisan backing despite persistent concerns about its impact on consumer affordability.


Ryan Cardwell, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Manitoba, is skeptical of politicians' rhetoric on the matter. He highlights the contradiction between advocating for food affordability while upholding a system he views as a government-sanctioned cartel.


Supply management, implemented initially in the dairy industry in the 1960s and later extended to eggs and poultry, regulates prices and controls production and imports to shield domestic farmers from foreign competition and stabilize production levels. Unlike subsidy-based systems elsewhere, proponents argue that supply management offers stability and predictability for both producers and consumers.


However, economists argue that the system limits competition, which typically results in lower prices. With the recent surge in food prices post-pandemic, concerns about competition in the industry have escalated. Despite this, sectors covered by supply management remain untouched by broader discussions on competition.


Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne emphasized the government's steadfast support for supply management, citing its role in providing stability to farmers and the nation. Legislative efforts have further cemented this support, with the House of Commons passing bills to limit concessions on supply management in trade negotiations.


Critics like former competition commissioner Melanie Aitken view supply management as a "sacred cow" in Ottawa, arguing that it hampers international trade opportunities and disproportionately affects lower-income consumers. Research suggests that supply management adds to the financial burden of the poorest households.


Advocates such as Bruce Muirhead, supported by lobby groups like the Egg Farmers of Canada, defend supply management, highlighting its role in ensuring food sovereignty and rural sustainability. They argue that without it, Canada would be flooded with cheaper foreign products, jeopardizing domestic farmers.


Despite debates surrounding its impact, supply management enjoys widespread support among Canadians. However, there is a lack of comprehensive understanding of its complexities and implications. Research indicates that support for supply management varies among demographics and political affiliations, with conservatives and those in favor of international trade more likely to oppose it.


While the NDP's agriculture critic defends supply management, citing its success in avoiding pitfalls experienced by other countries, the Conservative Party remains silent on the issue.


As debates continue and research delves deeper into public sentiment and political stances, supply management remains a contentious yet enduring fixture in Canadian agricultural policy.


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