David Orchard
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Globe and Mail, July 15, 1996

U.S. grain interests are cricling the Wheat Board

by David Orchard

Not the friendly giants: American corporations controlling most of the world's food supply are moving rapidly into Canada. Sovereignty over our own produce is at at stake.

Since the passage of the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) has been under growing attack. A small but noisy band of prairie farmers/truckers, using the rhetoric of the U.S. right, is running grain illegally across the border and denouncing the board as a "socialistic," "communistic," dictatorship.

These individuals, some of whom are buying grain from other farmers and trucking it across the border at a handsome profit to themselves, would not generate much support on their own. The rising U.S. price for grain makes their actions temporarily lucrative but these "freedom fighters" would quickly park their trucks -- and their rhetoric -- whenever U.S. prices were falling. Of far more significance are the major players of the U.S. grain trade.

Because of CWB protection, the Canadian grain industry remains 70% domestically controlled. Set up in 1935 under pressure from farmers, the board has become, in the words of Dan Morgan in his study of the trade, Merchants of Grain, "the most powerful and prestigious" marketing board in the world. Because it is such an effective competitor and because its presence blocks complete takeover by American grain giants, these companies have long sought its demise.

Thundering speeches by private grain representatives in the late 1940's and early 50's condemned the board as a socialist plot, but failed to sway farmers' support or that of the government of the day. After the huge Wheat Board sale to the Soviet Union in September 1963, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin attacked Canada for "an inexcusable case of trading with the enemy, for the enemy's benefit, in our cold war with the Soviet Union." Illinois Senator Paul Douglas called the sale "a direct blow to U.S. foreign policy that damages our best hope of overthrowing Russia and China through revolution from within." (One month later President Kennedy authorized U.S. grain sales to Moscow!)

Since the Free Trade Agreement, in the negotiation of which Cargill Grain of Minneapolis, the world's largest grain company, played a key role, the U.S. grain corporations have become emboldened. From the Reno convention of the National Wheat Growers early in 1996 the U.S. industry announced it supported Canadian farmers trying to end the CWB's monopoly on export sales. Winston Wilson, president of U.S. Wheat Associates declared, "One day we're going to have a North American wheat market. There is no way you're going to stop that, it's going to happen and we might as well get ready for it." Richard Garber, president of the Idaho Grain Producers said: "For the free trade agreement to work for both parties, Canada must make adjustments to bring their system closer to our marketing system."

Seven American and European families own the five corporations which control most of the world's food supply -- and are moving rapidly into Canada. In the words of Gord Cummings, CEO of Alberta Wheat Pool, the Board is "under attack, battered from all sides, with almost no defenders... I would describe it as the sharks have smelled blood and they are circling the body." Con Agra, the world's fourth largest food company has opened a Winnipeg office. Cargill is expanding its Canadian operation rapidly; and General Mills has just built a large grain facility in Sweetgrass, Montana in partnership with Alberta Pool. "A shift to north-south shipping patterns, the North American free trade agreement and massive rail reform prompted the decision to build the facility," says the company.

Without the CWB, Canada's grain trade would soon be about as "Canadian" as our energy industry, auto or movie industry. And Canadian flour milling -- which has gone with startling speed from mostly Canadian hands to almost complete American control. "From start to end, when the first major transaction happened, when an American company bought one of the Canadian flour mills until the point when virtually all the flour milling industry in Canada was owned by foreign interests, was 15 months," says Gord Cummings.

Losing control of the purchase and export of Canada's grain strikes at what is left of Canadian sovereignty. Under U.S. control, Canadian grain will go to countries that meet Washington's favour and to no one else. And the profits would go to U.S. corporations, not to Canada or its farmers. The breakthroughs in trade with China, the Soviet Union, Cuba and others achieved under Diefenbaker, Pearson and Trudeau, with great advantage to Canada, could not happen. The recent sale of CN Rail and termination of the historic east-west Crows' Nest Pass Freight Agreement facilitate the movement of Canadian grain south through the Gulf of Mexico where U.S. companies have the fleets of barges and terminals already in place to handle it.

The U. S. is not the Friendly Giant. It is Canada's competitor and by far its most dangerous one. Those who would destroy the Wheat Board are playing with fire and need a fast response from those concerned about the country's sovereignty.

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