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Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy and scientific director of the Agrifood Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

They may not know it yet, but the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) could become the watershed moment for which Canadian dairy farmers have been waiting. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has committed to compensating the dairy sector for either lost sales, higher per-unit costs or the loss in value of quotas. The government has been clear on intent, but woefully short on details.

What we can be sure of, however, is that the amount the federal government will come up with won’t be to farmers’ liking. But giving billions away in compensation would be more damaging to farmers than the effects of the trade deal itself. If the Trudeau government really wants to support the sector in its pursuit of a brighter future, it should think beyond simply compensating for losses that do not actually exist.

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The quota system itself has artificially created wealth for a small group of farmers. By restricting production and suppressing competition at the border, dairy farmers who received quotas for free when the system was established almost 50 years ago, have accumulated assets worth more than $5-million on average. For every litre of milk produced, dairy farmers in Canada receive 72-per-cent more than the world average price.

As a result, the average family income for dairy farmers exceeds $160,000, which is well above the Canadian average. Dairy farmers are not part of an underprivileged group – far from it. Farmers do work punishing hours and should be much-admired for the work they do for all of us, but many other Canadians put in the same amount of work and contribute equally to the economy.

But for dairy farmers, wealth and salaries are theatrically inflated by a highly protectionist system. Compensating affluent farmers when many other Canadians remain food insecure would be a political hard-sell.

A sense of entitlement and the belief that the system is real is so entrenched in the sector that it makes it impossible to have challenging conversations about its future.

With supply management, the thinking has always been based on our own domestic needs. Obviously, allowing more imports can only be perceived as losses for the industry instead of an opportunity to expand and look for market openings. The USMCA adds to the pressure generated by two other trade agreements signed in the past few years. According to Dairy Farmers of Canada, market-share losses from recent trade deals with Asia, Europe, and now North America, total 18 per cent, an amount worth $1.8-billion to milk producers.

Given that supply management is about producing what the domestic market needs, that would equate to almost 1,800 dairy farms we no longer need. It is a zero-sum game environment, with very few conversations about how to repurpose these farms.

Dairy farmers desperately need to become more market-focused and in sync with an increasingly fragmented market. With more allergies, intolerances or different culinary traditions and tastes, consumers are looking for different food products. Imagine blue moon, banana cream or black cherry low-fat, lactose-free milk. These exist, but not in Canada. Vodka made from milk is also a product whose popularity is increasing, but other countries have beaten us to the punch.

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The Canadian economy needed this deal, as supply management represents only 1 per cent of gross domestic product, so signing with the United States and Mexico was critical. But before we make senseless decisions on how to support our dairy sector, a clear vision and strategy for its future is imperative, with a forward-looking focus on both domestic and foreign markets.

The Canadian Dairy Commission will need to entice our dairy farms to become more competitive by changing the pricing formula that has been used to compensate farmers. Instead of going with averages, it should create high-performance benchmarks. Secondly, a quota system for export markets should be put in place that would allow new entrepreneurs, and new ways of thinking, to enter the market. And finally, as other countries have done before us, an exit program should be created, as soon as possible, to encourage farmers who don’t see themselves participating in an open economy. Not everyone wants to compete, but this should not be at the expense of hard-working taxpayers.

All of this can be achieved with minimal subsidies. At present, Canadian farmers are in fact less subsidized than American farmers, but just barely. In Canada, 9.6 per cent of all farm revenues are subsidized compared to 9.9 per cent in the United States, according to the OECD. In Australia, where a similar supply management scheme was dismantled in 2000, only 1.7 per cent of general farm revenues are subsidies. Subsidies can help, but only for a while, and should be considered a stop-gap for farmers, not an industry norm.

Without these measures, any compensation given to dairy farmers can only be considered agricultural welfare, and our dairy farmers deserve better. Canadians expect more. This is the only way we can keep some of our Canadian dairy farms.

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