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’Buy local’ food policies not at risk in EU deal: Ritz

CBC News, Canada

’Buy local’ food policies not at risk in EU deal: Ritz

Public institutions will still be able to favour local food suppliers, agriculture minister says

12 October 2011

Canada’s agriculture minister says he’s heard nothing in European free trade talks that would jeopardize policies favouring local food suppliers, but the National Farmers Union says a draft text suggests otherwise.

The Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) is expected to include a section on "covered procurement" at the insistence of European negotiators. Municipal, provincial or federal institutions tendering large contracts above a defined threshold amount would be obliged to consider European suppliers.

For a potentially large food supply purchase, it could mean "buy local" food policies to support area farmers could not be enforced at the expense of potential European suppliers of the same products.

Across Canada, efforts to get public institutions to support local food producers range from government incentives to encourage and develop local suppliers, such as Ontario’s Broader Public Sector Investment Fund, to specific targets to buy a defined percentage of food from local suppliers, such as those implemented in Nova Scotia’s health-care facilities or the University of Toronto’s food services.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz was in Germany Wednesday promoting trade in Canadian agricultural commodities and meeting with German government officials. Asked whether Canada would have to give up these types of "buy Canadian" programs to reach a deal, Ritz disagreed.

"I’m not hearing that at all," he said.

"I think it comes down to the cost of goods, the transportation of goods," he continued. "Certainly in some cases it makes sense if it’s a processed material to ship it that far, but when you’re talking raw produce and best-before dated product it becomes quite problematic shipping it that far."
Farmers union raises concerns

The National Farmers Union has been actively campaigning against the free trade deal for months, raising concerns about several aspects of the negotiations, including the public procurement provisions.

NFU president Terry Boehm said he has spoken personally with Canada’s chief negotiator, Steve Verheul, and seen working drafts of the agreement based on negotiations so far.

"The Europeans are very emphatic this is a key piece," Boehm said, adding he’s surprised to hear Ritz suggest that Canadian public-sector initiatives to favour local food suppliers won’t be affected.

"It’s a sharp contrast to what I’ve been told to this point," Boehm said, pointing out that the draft he’s studied would even prevent institutions from dividing their contracts so they wouldn’t be large enough to reach the threshold at which the terms of the free trade deal would apply.

For provincial or municipal procurement in health-care facilities, correctional facilities or schools, the threshold could be contracts above $335,000 worth of goods and services.

However, not everyone active promoting local food initiatives feels threatened by the Canada-EU trade talks.

Burkhard Mausberg, the CEO of Ontario’s Greenbelt Foundation, is involved in the Ontario government program to fund local food initiatives, helping local farmers connect with processors and buyers in their region. While stressing that his organization doesn’t require institutions to buy local food in any defined quantities, he does hope to make it easier for people to choose local food.

"Investments in things like local economic development will continue," he said, adding that the food system as a whole is very complicated and buying decisions are always going to be based on a variety of factors.

Still, he added, he’d like people to "prefer the food that their neighbour grows."