White gold. Chilliwack crude. Lactose candy. The creamy dragon.
There’s lots of street names for it, but most people know it as milk. Cold, hard, milk.
Its enticing allure is hard to resist. And, indeed, many powerful people have fallen under her spell. But few have fallen harder than Andrew Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
Last week, Scheer stood before a crowd of milk dealers in Saskatoon and promised that he would “absolutely” look to overhaul the dairy-averse Canadian food guide, pledging his cow-based intake regime would "actually reflect what we know, what the science tells us."
Scheer insisted that there are shadowy forces at play, who have fought to quash milk from reaching our thirsty lips. He told the annual meeting of the Dairy Farmers of Canada that Canada’s new food guide “seems to be ideologically driven by people who have a philosophical perspective and a bias against certain types of healthy food products.”
But while the Tory leader seems steadfast in his belief that the cow farmers of the country have been herd-done-by (not sorry), it might be worth asking just how much power this cabal of black-and-white spotted influence-peddlers really carries.
Canada’s dairy, chicken, egg, and turkey industries are all run under a system called supply management—that means government-run boards decide who gets to produce those goods, and how much. The boards also buy those goods for a set price, and go about ensuring the goods get to secondary processors, supermarkets, restaurants, and convenience stores.
This system is inherently anti-competitive, so doesn’t exactly work in a system where there are imports and exports. That’s why Canada has aggressive tariffs, ranging from 200 to 300 percent, on these goods coming in from other countries.
This was all set up more than 50 years ago, and hasn’t changed too much since. When the Canadian government slashed prices in the 1970s as a result of over-production, dairy farmers stormed Parliament Hill. The Ottawa Citizen reported at the time that the agriculture minister of the time walked to the microphone to address the crowd, and only managed to say “I am your minister of agriculture” before he was thwacked with a jug of milk.
The message has always been: Mess with the milkers at your own risk.
The greatest threats to this insular system of chicks and heifers have come in recent years, through a trade deal with the European Union, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and talks on an updated NAFTA. Despite some concern from the farmers and their lobbyists, the supply management system survived relatively unscathed—more foreign cheese and milk will come into Canada, tariff-free, but the system remains intact.
You wouldn’t know it, from the sky-is-falling crying cries of the chickens in Parliament.
When I wrote about this system back in 2014, Ottawa was trying to negotiate a pot of money to compensate dairy farmers for every dollar of lost revenue that would come as a result of the European deal. Not good enough, they said. In 2016, the Trudeau government announced $350 million in cash to buy new equipment and update their technology to help them to, apparently, compete.
Not bad, for a collection of farms that make up less than 10 percent of all farms in the country, according to Statistics Canada. On average, accounting for capital costs, dairy cow farms make about $15,000 more per year than beef farms.
The collectivist nature of the dairy farms and their marketing boards also means they’ve got ample cash on hand to lobby the pants off every politician in the country. Some have put the figure at $80 to $100 million a year.
You haven’t truly experienced Ottawa until you’ve seen a cabinet minister bee-line through a crowd of people in the opulent ballroom of the Chateau Laurier, a glass of beer in one hand and a glass of milk in the other. That’s the Dairy Farmers of Canada lobbyist night.
Few politicians in the country have challenged this orthodoxy.
Maxime Bernier did. When he sat in cabinet, railing to his fellow ministers that supply management had to go, Gerry Ritz, the Conservative agricultural minister of the day, was scandalized. It wasn’t going to happen.
The ministers who once agreed with Bernier have since gone back to the gospel of dairy, at least in public. Bernier, meanwhile, perhaps damaged by years of struggling against his cheddar overlords, is now running his own anti-globalist gongshow. He lost his bid for Conservative leader, many believe, thanks to a concerted lobbying effort by the dairy farmers, who lined up behind Scheer. A briefing binder prepared for the yoghurt heads at the Tory leadership convention establishes as much.
Bernier aside, every other party in Parliament professes their undying love for this arcane system that few understand, let alone are capable of explaining.
In a list of commitments published by the NDP this month, the party pledged to: “protect supply management and stand up against unfair tariffs.” Nobody tell them about the 298% butter tariff, I suppose.
All this is not terribly surprising. We may think the real decisions are made by tobacco lobbyists floating through the halls of power, their faces permanently obscured by a fog of smoke; or by defence executives, scuffing the marble floors with the heavy suitcases laden with cash they drag in tow—it’s farmers who really run the show.
It makes sense. If a photographer catches an elected representative sharing a warm glass of milk with a dairy lobbyist, it would be far from a scandal—it would probably cement your status as a Friend of Betsy.
There’s something noble about telling the world you’re in bed with dairy farmers. They’re your constituents, after all. Nevermind that the dairy industry is, increasingly, centralizing into larger-and-larger corporations as the cost of buying in the market rises beyond what any lay farmer could afford. Nevermind that. Nothing buys you authenticity like milk.
Look at Donald Trump. He repeatedly threatened to rip up NAFTA over a tiny trade irritant around ultrafiltered milk—basically, Canada was importing some milk protein duty-free, until Canadian farmers figured a way to make it themselves and imports dropped. That one issue, worth something like $130 million, was enough to convince Trump to jeopardize billions in cross-border trade between three countries. What’s worse, Canada was so protective of its own dairy farmers that it went to the brink in an effort to avoid capitulation on that front.
Dairy farmers are, of course, great. Fill me up with brie any day. But they wield an obscene amount of power in this country that is not enjoyed by other folks in the agricultural sector.
Canadian politicians really do need to ask themselves how many pints of Moose Tracks their soul is worth.
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