Self-sufficiency looks good again - Keith Roulston editorial
Having grown up on a farm at a time when self-sufficiency was a goal, I’ve always been dubious about free trade, but I never thought it would endanger Canadian lives.
But accepting the theory of free trade – that countries should concentrate on what they can do cheapest and import goods from countries that can produce them cheaper than we can – has left Canada in a position that in a time of global pandemic, we have no facilities to produce life-saving COVID-19 vaccines and must depend on the goodwill of other countries.
“We had great vaccine producers in Canada – world leaders essentially – 50 years ago,” Earl Brown, an infectious disease expert told CTV’s Your Morning last fall. There was Connaught Laboratories in Toronto, which was known for producing insulin to treat diabetes and inoculants for diphtheria and polio, and Institut Armand Frappier in Montreal that produced vaccines, including one for tuberculosis, he noted.
But policies of privatization led to both manufacturers being bought by foreign pharmaceutical giants who then, thanks to free trade, took their production to plants elsewhere in the world, leaving Canada to import vaccines.
Early on, long before any vaccines had been approved for use, the Canadian government had contracted with several foreign vaccine makers for more than enough vaccines to inoculate every Canadian. We didn’t turn to the U.S. at the time because then-President Donald Trump had proved his country was an undependable supplier last spring when he tried to block exports of N95 masks that Canada had contracted with 3M to deliver. That was another example of Canada becoming dependent on imported masks because we no longer made any here.
But now, worried about vaccinating its own people first, the European Union has threatened to block exports of vaccines made there. Although the Canadian government has verbal assurance that the vaccines it has contracted for will be delivered, many people remember the old saying that a verbal agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
Already Canadians will have died because of production delays with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines because of a factory expansion in Belgium and of the European-made Moderna vaccine which is taking more time than expected to ramp up production.
Pfizer-BioNTech has a huge plant just across the border in Michigan but new President Joe Biden has made it clear that all its production will stay in the U.S. as he pursues his goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of his presidency. He has invoked the Defense Production Act to compel companies based in the U.S. to produce supplies to help Americans fight the pandemic.
Both Europe and the U.S. have only recently negotiated trade agreements with Canada but the pandemic has shown that
free trade gets blown right out of the water when there’s something like this and it’s every country for itself.
To me it has always seemed that trade agreements were about trying to get a larger piece of the other country’s domestic market for your manufacturers while giving up as little of their own market as possible. When an emergency happens, however, established contracts for cross-border trade mean nothing.
There has been a small area in which Canada has remained self-sufficient. Dairy, eggs, chicken and turkey have been produced under a heavily-criticized supply management system that tries to balance supply with demand so farmers’ prices aren’t undercut. Farmers of other commodities, economists and media critics have demanded these trade-blocking marketing schemes be abolished.
During all of the recent trade negotiations (CUSMA with the U.S. and Mexico, the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic with Europe as well as Trade Agree-ment and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), other countries had demanded a larger share of Canadian dairy product markets. The Canadian government has compensated farmers, to some extent, for their loss of market share.
But if Canada becomes dependent on imported dairy products and if some sort of world-wide plague attacked dairy cattle and created a shortage, you can bet your boots that our trade partners would no longer want to export products to meet Canada’s needs. They’d want to keep it all for themselves.
The federal government can now see its past mistakes and is investing millions to build new domestic vaccine-producing plants. Belatedly, it’s also supporting labs to develop Canadian vaccines.
Self-sufficiency, once seen as old-fashioned and inefficient, seems to look good again.