By Cherilyn Nagel: Mossbank, Saskatchewan, Canada
It never occurred to me to worry about the future of NAFTA. From my farm in Saskatchewan, I thought that Canada and the United States are such natural trade partners that our mutually beneficial trade agreement would last forever.
These days, though, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on with NAFTA, which also includes Mexico in a continent-wide economic union. It seems like the United States has been verbally in and out and then in again, judging from last week’s headlines. Now it looks like we’re headed for some kind of renegotiation.
Perhaps that makes sense: Just as we need to tighten screws around the house from time to time, I believe we can improve a few of NAFTA’s details, updating it for the 21st century.
Yet we must also remember that free trade provides net gains for each nation—and the basic principles of NAFTA remain sound.
I’m reminded of the advantages of global trade every morning, when I drink a cup of coffee. The beans come from a faraway place such as Guatemala, Rwanda, or Sumatra. The only reason I can enjoy this liquid energy on my rural farm is because Canadians can buy and sell across borders. The same goes for the bananas my children eat at snack time and the orange juice I buy in the produce section of my local grocery store. Last time I checked, cotton for our clothes didn’t grow here either.
I’m all for supporting local farmers, but none of these consumer items would be available to Canadians without global trade.
As a Canadian consumer, I rely on these imports—and as a Canadian farmer, I count on exports for my livelihood. My green lentils ship to India, my durum wheat becomes pasta in Italy, my canola is crushed into a heart-healthy oil for our neighbors south of the border and my chickpeas provide protein in Turkey.
If we didn’t have the opportunity to sell our farm’s food to customers in other countries, our farm would not be viable. Exports are an essential part of our business model.
Consider the case of our durum wheat. Each year, we produce about 350,000 bushels of it on our farm. I’ve done the math, calculating how much pasta each bushel can produce. It turns out that our farm’s durum wheat accounts for about 117 million servings of pasta each year!
That’s more than three bowls of spaghetti for each Canadian man, woman, and child—and we’re just one farm.
Add in the other farmers of western Canada and it’s clear that we grow far more durum wheat than our nation needs. So, we sell it to the world, just as we import the coffee that I want to drink in the morning. What a wonderful economy!
NAFTA allows goods and services to flow freely between Canada, the United States and Mexico. In the grain business, I’ve seen how this has improved the efficiency of our handling systems and reduces price distortions. The result is more jobs for workers, lower prices for consumers, and a boost to economic opportunity on both sides of the border.
But ok, since I’m being forced to, I can also imagine an even better NAFTA—and that’s what we just might be able to achieve, in this unique moment. Last week, when President Trump suggested that he might quit NAFTA, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the White House and urged him to reconsider.
“We agreed that we could sit down and get to work on looking at ways to improve NAFTA, as it’s been improved before, in a thoughtful way that will benefit all of our countries,” said PM Trudeau.
That will be true again if we can resist asking “what’s in it for me?”
I’ve read a lot on social media lately about how Canada needs to protect our dairy industry. I know several dairy producers and I am very confident that they would rival the best in the world for quality and for being downright good people. I’m pleased to support our dairy farmers, as long as they’re playing by the same free market principles and rules that determine success or failure of my own farm.
We must connect the dots for ordinary citizens, who benefit from free trade but may not think much about why or how. It goes way beyond grains and milk. Our cars, equipment, fertilizer and oil —we rely on trade agreements for all of them.
To achieve this, we must think globally about how competition makes us all better—and now we have a chance to bring NAFTA into even closer alignment with these principles. So, when you hear talk about NAFTA in the coming months, think about what it means to you every day. Think about what it takes – the people, jobs and the free flow of trade - to bring that cup of coffee to you in the morning.
Cherilyn and her husband own a diversified grain farm in Mossbank, Saskatchewan, Canada. In addition to farming, Cherilyn is active in many agricultural policy initiatives to improve the sustainability of agriculture and advocate for modern agricultural practices. Cherilyn volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).