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Canadian farmers chart gains in Japan as tariffs fall in Asia-Pacific markets

It was the 1990s when a pair of Japanese butchers climbed aboard an airplane and travelled some 8,000 kilometres to visit a family-owned pork plant in rural Alberta.

The local owners of Sunterra Farms hosted the men because, to crack one of the world’s most desirable markets, their staff needed to see exactly how Japanese consumers liked their meat.

The swift, precise blade work of the meat cutters left quite the impression.

“One of the guys that was on our [production] line said, ‘These guys aren’t butchers — they’re artists,'” recalled Ray Price, president of Sunterra Farms.

From those early days, Sunterra’s Japanese exports have grown to become the majority of their processing business. And with a newly minted trade pact among Asia-Pacific nations, Price can see even better things ahead.

“It’s really good,” said Price, assessing the impact of the deal — called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — on his business with Japan.

“We see it as an opportunity to continue to grow that market.”

The CPTPP is a free trade agreement involving Canada and 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Among the group are Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

It does not include the United States, which backed out after Donald Trump became president.

The deal lifts, cuts or phases out tariffs involving a variety of industries but there’s also more to it than that, said Carlo Dade, a trade expert with the Canada West Foundation in Calgary. For one, it also harmonizes regulatory practices.

“Even in places where the tariffs don’t come down, we have an advantage over the Americans, in that we now have formal agreements to deal with all the non-tariff stuff that drives farmers and exporters crazy,” Dade said.

For many in Canada’s agrifood sector, and beef and pork producers in particular, the jewel in the deal appears to be Japan.

Canadian farmers for years faced their share of challenges to make inroads into the country, often competing against the heft of American exporters while lugging the expense of trade levies.

Now, armed with the trade pact, some are setting their sights on carving out a bigger piece of that rich market, especially with the United States sitting on the sidelines.

This may be good for canola and wheat growers, but it’s those in the meat business that might be happiest of all.

“Exports of pork and beef products should benefit most from the absence of the United States,” according to one federal economic analysis issued last year.

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