By Cole Parkinson
As beet producers continue to work towards the fall harvest, the Alberta Sugar Beet Growers have been busy advocating for a domestic sugar policy.
In a delegation to the Municipal District of Taber’s July 27 meeting, the ASBG highlighted their work so far this summer and how they’re approaching advocating for a new policy.
One focus has been on helping out the economy as people begin to start looking at a post-COVID world.
“(We have been talking about) how us sugar beet growers can help the local, provincial, and the federal economy recover post-COVID. That’s what everybody is talking about these days,” stated Gary Tokariuk, president of the ASBG. “Southern Alberta, as you know, is the only place in Canada that’s growing and refining sugar beets. That adds value across the whole supply chain and our growers want to increase the acres they are growing and we have a ton of new growers that want to join. The desire is there for the increase of acres grown in southern Alberta and probably Canada. The sugar from our beets here in Taber only accounts for 10 per cent, at the most, of Canadian use, which is 1.2 million tons of sugar. The rest is raw cane that is brought in from countries like Brazil, Guatemala, and Vietnam. That serves only the refiners in a profit margin area and the farmers in these smaller countries. It’s not contributing much to Canada as a whole.”
Tokariuk also talked about the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) trade agreement and how it has impacted them.
“Right now, through CUSMA, we have an allotment of 20,000 tons that we are allowed to ship in the USA under the TRQ. This is the only free-trade agreement that gives preferential treatment sugar beet sugar, so it has to be filled by our sugar out of this plant here. As you guys know, the industry in southern Alberta contributes over 2,000 jobs and has a GDP contribution of close to $250 million. It may not seem high when you list other crops, but we’re only 28,000 acres. As a small number of acres, we are very high valued crop,” continued Tokariuk. “Over the last two years, and this started because of the desire from Canadians to know where their food comes from, how it’s grown, is it ethically grown, and is it grown in Canada — so we have obtained this Farm Sustainable Assessment Verification, which is a silver level.”
With the hope of growing more acres in southern Alberta, the ASBG explained how that isn’t feasible at this current time because of the local processing facility.
But with ag continuing to be looked at as an economic driver, it was highlighted how sugar beet growers can help be a solution.
“Our growers want to grow more acres — it’s how we get them there right? We are limited currently by the fact our processing facility has got only so much capacity and we’re the only one in Canada. But the pandemic has brought to light an impetus and an opportunity for us to push an agenda that we thought was maybe a few years away,” explained Melody Garner-Skiba, executive director. “We’d like to seize the moment and everybody is talking about how Alberta needs to get off of the oil and gas roller coaster. Minister (Marie-Claude) Bibeau said that agriculture needs to play a major role in our economic recovery.”
She continued to explain the pandemic highlighted the need for more Canadian products on shelves.
“That includes increasing food security. I don’t know if you saw during the pandemic, but there were grocery stores in urban centres where there was no sugar left on the shelves because of the home baking movement. More and more people were going home, they were baking and cooking and they needed more sugar. So, the only way they could do it at that point was to import more raw cane,” continued Garner-Skiba.
She also touched on several other issues within the ag industry.
“Climate change, of course, has become a hotter topic in how can agriculture reduce our impact on greenhouse gases and what can we do? Our sustainability verification Gary noted is one step of that, but when we look more globally at climate change, and specifically sugar production, and you compare what our farmers in southern Alberta are doing here compared to Guatemala and Vietnam, doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at if from an environmental standpoint or a labour standpoint, we’re heads and tails above,” said Garner-Skiba. “We just produce a product in a more ethical and sustainable manner. Canadians, with the pandemic, really started to look more closely at that, so we’ve got this wave of Canadians wanting more food that is produced and refined here in Canada. They want food that is produced in a sustainable and ethical manner and when we look at that, we kind of tick those boxes. Lastly, we’re hearing a lot of conversation around rural jobs and rural economic development. I know that’s a priority here for your council — we want to look at what more can we do in southern Alberta to promote jobs to hire people.”
With many countries employing a sugar policy, it was pointed out Canada was lacking in that department.
“We feel we’ve got a potential here for us if we add one more tool in the toolbox through a domestic sugar policy where we can tick all of these boxes of food security, reducing climate change, and also ensuring our farmers are being treated on a level playing field,” added Garner-Skiba. “We’re the only major trading nation that does not have a domestic sugar policy. The U.S. has a fantastic sugar policy and that’s why they produce the majority of their domestic sugar in the U.S. That’s not the case here. We’re the exact opposite. Our thoughts, with all of this impetus going on, we need to get to the point where we need to be at the table with a domestic sugar policy. That’s what we’re here for today.”
Work has already begun on developing a policy.
“We worked with Seracon Consulting over the past year on developing a white paper of what a domestic sugar policy would look like. That would help our farmers grow more acres while also no cutting our refiners off at the knees. We have a strong partnership with Lantic and Rogers, what we don’t want to do is hurt that partnership whatsoever,” she said. “Out of it came two pillars, so it’s a two-pronged approach is what we’re looking at. We’re looking at managing imports and managing exports. I would say the low hanging fruit out of all of this is managing our exports. Any free-trade agreement we enter into should prioritize beet sugar. It should just be like CUSMA. If we get access to a market, it should be for beet sugar. Only if beet sugar could not fulfill it, then you could supply it with a refined cane that’s coming in from Guatemala and Vietnam.”
The other big piece is going to be a bigger challenge says Garner-Skiba.
“We would like to see as an opportunity identified in that paper is a TRQ, a tariff basically, put on 200,000 tons of imported raw cane sugar. To put that into perspective, we import over a million tons of raw cane. We’re not saying to put a tariff on all the raw cane coming in because if we did that, that would cripple the refiners and our industry would be cut off at the knees. What we’re saying is let’s start this with a gradual and phased approach. Let’s put a tariff on 200,000 tons of raw sugar, which would then encourage investment into beet sugar production facilities. The interesting thing about this is that’s not just in southern Alberta. Would southern Alberta benefit? Absolutely — we would be the first one out of the gate to benefit from this because all we would need is an expansion of the factory. We could also see this where there’s federal buy-in, in places like Ontario.”
She also pointed out the tariffs would lead to more competitive pricing.
“We also feel that if we were to throw a tariff on those 200,000 tons of raw cane sugar, some of our processing facilities that currently use cane sugar in their production of sugar-containing products like candy bars, soft drinks, and things like that, if that sugar is now a little bit more expensive or at least we’re having to compete on an equal playing field, they’re going to choose a Canadian product,” she said. “We have already met with some of our federal MPs and there’s extreme interest in bringing this forward in a private member’s bill.”
“I think the Municipal District of Taber probably has the largest number of acres. I firmly believe we are fully in support of this. This is something that I know has been talked about for years and years, and maybe we finally have an opportunity,” replied Reeve Merrill Harris.
Coun. Tamara Miyanaga also pointed out sharing the information with the community was critical because not everyone realizes the issue as not everyone is a sugar beet grower. It was asked what the M.D. could do to further help.
“I think what we’re going to be looking for is, when we look at the provincial ask for a letter of support and advocacy on that, I think that’s where we’re going to rely on our municipalities where the beet growers are to really send a strong message to our province that this is important. We are asking for tariffs, so that might be a little off-putting provincially. I’m a little concerned about that. However, if we have the support of the municipalities, and there are reasons we’re doing this and we’re only asking for tariffs on the 200,000 tons. Again, not world domination, just a little bigger piece of the pie,” responded Garner-Skiba.
Council also asked if there is enough interest and land to expand sugar beet acres in the M.D.
“It would probably be at the expense of your other crops like your canola seed or things like that because you can’t have sugar beets and canola in the same rotation. But I know a lot of potato guys that would love to have both because then you don’t have the white mold from canola or beans in the rotation. Potatoes and beets are a nice rotation,” replied Tokariuk.