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NFU, R-CALF link arms against NAFTA

Seen by many for years as a protectionist thorn in the sides of Canadian cattle producers, the U.S. ranchers’ group R-CALF claims to have picked up new defenders in Canada’s National Farmers Union (NFU).

The two groups were among several meeting earlier this week in Billings, Montana at a two-day conference hosted by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC), discussing the “negative ramifications” of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for farmers in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

The benefits of NAFTA have instead been reaped by multinational corporations in each of the agreement’s member countries, NFU and R-CALF spokesmen were quoted as saying in an R-CALF release Tuesday.

“We no longer view R-CALF as a threat because our cattle producers are facing the same challenges as independent U.S. cattle producers,” said Neil Peacock, a farmer and NFU board member from Sexsmith, Alta., in R-CALF’s release.

“Just like R-CALF members in the U.S., we are fighting the packers, the mega-corporations and the ramifications of NAFTA and the WTO,” he said. “It would be nice to unite with R-CALF to fight the issues we have in common.”

Consumers in all three countries need to be able to know where their beef comes from and be able to support their domestic producers if that’s what they wish to do, said Jan Slomp, another NFU board member from Rimbey, Alta., in R-CALF’s release.

“XL/Cargill keeps feeding us this line that R-CALF is just a protectionist organization against everything,” Slomp said. “We’ve been fed this bull about continental integration, that increases in exports will benefit ranchers and farmers, and that’s just not true. We’ve been sucked into this corporate structure that is very, very hard to correct.”

R-CALF USA (short for Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) first drew the ire of many Canadian cattle producers in 1998-99 when, as an upstart northern-state ranchers’ group, it called for and got antidumping and countervailing measures taken against U.S. imports of Canadian cattle.

The duties levied against imports of Canadian cattle were eventually overturned but cost Canadian cattle producers millions of dollars to fight.

R-CALF would later gain further notoriety in the Canadian cattle sector as it launched challenges in U.S. courts to keep the U.S. border closed to Canadian cattle after the 2003 discovery of BSE in an Alberta cow. It has also been an active proponent of mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) legislation in the U.S.

“Not working”

Also at the Billings meeting was Dennis Olson, a senior policy analyst at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), who said NAFTA “has not curtailed the growing power of the global meat cartels, both in our livestock markets and in our politics.”

NAFTA, he said, “impedes the rights of all three countries to establish their own food and agricultural policies that provide farmers with the cost of production, as long as those policies do not result in the dumping of agricultural commodities into the other markets at below the cost of production.”

“NAFTA is not working for Mexican and Canadian farmers,” said Gilles Stockton, a rancher from Grass Range, Mont., representing WORC, in a separate IATP release. “It is certainly not working for U.S. farmers and ranchers. We also learned that it is not working for consumers.”

NAFTA has also severely affected agricultural and livestock sectors in Mexico, as U.S. exports of pork to Mexico increased about 40 per cent between 2007 and 2008 and now supply about half of the domestic pork consumption in Mexico, according to Alejandro Ramirez Gonzalez of the Confederation of Mexican Hog Farmers.

“Far from providing benefits for farmers, we’ve been trampled on by imports to degrees that threaten the sovereignty of our country,” he said in the IATP release.

During the meeting, R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard said, his group shared with producers from Canada and Mexico a report on its efforts to prevent the proposed acquisition of National Beef Packing Co. from U.S. Premium Beef by Brazil-based JBS, the world’s largest beef packer and exporter.

“This merger would increase packer concentration to an unprecedented level, resulting in reduced competition that will harm both cattle producers and beef consumers,” Bullard said in R-CALF’s release.

“We were pleased to learn that Canadian producers support R-CALF’s efforts to prevent further concentration in the meatpacking industry and to eliminate anticompetitive cattle procurement practices going on in each of our countries,” he said. “We look forward to sharing information with Canadian producers that will help both Canada and the U.S. restore competition for all cattle farmers and ranchers.”

Also attending the Billings meeting was Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch, who said in R-CALF’s release that she was at the meeting to discuss how to work together to stop the negative impacts caused by bad trade policies.

“Even as prices livestock producers receive have gone steadily down, retail food prices rarely do,” said Lovera, an assistant director with the Washington, D.C.-based group. “So while the producer’s share of the retail food dollar continues to shrink, consumers are not spending less at the meat and dairy case.”

The Billings conference was sponsored by the NFU, IATP, WORC, the National Association of Peasant Marketing Enterprises and Food and Water Watch.

Other participants besides R-CALF and the Confederation of Mexican Hog Farmers included the Democratic Peasant Front of Chihuahua, La Jornada del Campo, the Dakota Resource Council, Dakota Rural Action, the Farmers Legal Action Group (U.S.) and Northern Plains Resource Council.

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