Maintaining trade is ongoing battle

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As everyone knows, agriculture is at the mercy of the weather. While less talked about and less obvious, agriculture is also at the mercy of trade disruptions, particularly in Saskatchewan where we're extremely reliant on export markets.Saskatchewan is the world's largest exporter of canaryseed and a trade issue has emerged with Mexico, our largest customer. Mexican officials have been complaining about the level of wild buckwheat seeds within canaryseed shipments. Back in mid-June, they shocked the industry by announcing a zero tolerance for the weed seed.

Wild buckwheat is a common weed on the Canadian Prairies. There are herbicides to control it within canaryseed crops and most foreign material including weed seeds can be removed in the cleaning process before canaryseed is exported.

However, no one can guarantee that a shipment is absolutely free of weed seeds.

Canadian and Mexican officials are working on the procedure to allow shipments stalled at the Mexican border into the country. And they're negotiating on new standards for quarantined weed seeds to allow business to resume. Thankfully, there seems to be recognition in Mexico that zero tolerance is not feasible.

Saskatchewan farmers can be forgiven for thinking this is all a ploy to lower canaryseed prices. The problem seems to be fuelled by a genuine desire to stop the spread of weeds into the Mexican countryside.

If the issue can be quickly resolved and if the new standards for weed seed content are reasonable, it will bode well for the approximately 3,000 canaryseed growers in the province. If the problems linger, it will have a dampening effect on exports and price levels. Mexico typically takes a quarter of our canaryseed exports.

On field peas, a couple of long-standing trade issues have been resolved in recent times. India finally seems to understand that if it wants Canadian peas fumigated for insects, it's best done at Indian ports. It's just too cold here much of the year.

And China has been convinced that naturally occurring selenium in our peas can be a health benefit rather than a reason to suppress imports. Pulse Canada should be congratulated for its ongoing efforts in both the Indian and Chinese markets.

Other trade issues are ongoing. Accessing the European market with our flaxseed is still problematic. They will only take shipments with extremely low levels of the genetically modified variety known as Triffid.

That sensitivity has spilled over to condiment mustard. Some European customers will only take mustard shipments containing very low levels of genetically modified canola.

Sometimes it's transportation that causes trade disruptions. There's growing concern over regulations being implemented by the state of New York that could cripple traffic through the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The regulations pertain to ballast water used by ships to balance their loads. The discharge of ballast water is blamed for the introduction of many invasive species into the Great Lakes. The New York regulations require ships to clean their ballast water to very high standards - standards that ships cannot presently meet.

Amazingly, the regulations do not regulate the discharge of ballast water, but rather the transit of ships containing ballast water. Observers say ballast water is not typically released from a vessel during transport.

The regulatory changes are slated for January 2012.

Hopefully, rational thought will prevail well before then. Many groups are calling for a national uniform standard rather than letting individual states set their own rules.

According to the Western Grain Elevator Association, Canada exports approximately seven million tonnes of grain annually through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, so the grain industry has a big stake in seeing more reasonable regulations.

You should never take the weather for granted and the same applies to trade.

Kevin Hursh is a consulting agrologist and farmer based in Saskatoon. He can be reached at kevin@hursh.ca. His column usually appears in Monday's paper on the Dollars and Sense page, but has been printed here because the Herald did not publish on Monday due to the Civic Holiday.

Organizations: Canadian Prairies, Western Grain Elevator Association

Geographic location: Mexico, Canada, Saskatchewan New York India Great Lakes China St. Lawrence Seaway Saskatoon

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