China Agri-Food Mission: “We can’t roll over and play dead”

If you saw the 2011 movie Contagion, you know how bird flu can be vilified. Movie goers left the theatre scared senseless that any traveller they encountered could be a ticking time bomb, as a result of a virus that appeared to spread from the close association between poultry and humans on some Asian farms.

Being a movie — and being fiction — it was regarded by some observers as a stretch of the imagination (although world health authorities were said to have praised its potential accuracy). But globally, it’s still a touchy time to be laden with a viral disease.

For example, the world is on edge about Ebola, which has raised the interest in all things viral. Health care officials have tried to introduce calm by assuring us it’s very unlikely this disease could take hold here. However, whether you’ve travelled to a country known to have Ebola is a question travellers currently must answer when entering Canada. And of course there are the pictures we see in the media. No wonder it’s on people’s minds.

In the midst of all this comes Ontario’s high-powered agri-food trade mission to China. It leaves Wednesday, despite the untimely appearance in the province of H5N2 avian influenza. And as the 20-member delegation was packing its bags, nine Ontario poultry farms were under quarantine, after the highly contagious bird flu virus was found on one.

Despite this development, though, the trade mission to China has stayed focused, taking a long view on trade and global relations. At a news teleconference this week, two of the provincial cabinet ministers who are leading the 20-person entourage (which does not include poultry producers) made it clear they’re united in their resolve to put the bird flu situation in perspective.

At any given time, they could encounter challenges that threaten their mission – maybe nothing as severe as an avian disease that leads to farms being quarantined, but a host of other problems could arise. They have to soldier on.
“We can’t roll over and play dead” because of bird flu, said citizenship, immigration and international trade minister Michael Chan, who is co-leading the mission with agriculture, food and rural affairs minister Jeff Leal. “The key is to go and build relationships, show [China] what we have, what we can export, and understand their culture and their way of doing things. Ontario must diversify its markets.”

They want the mission to further build relations with China – which to many people’s surprise, is already our second-largest agri-food export market, behind the USA. To this end, agri-food trade missions have certainly worked before, yielding what the province calls “measurable results” for the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association and Pillitteri Estates Winery.

In 2013, they were part of a trade mission to China, which is now credited in part for a $40-million increase in the value of the Ontario’s ginseng crop in just one year, and for new orders for more than 2,500 cases of Pillitteri ice wine from five new customers in China.

The province and others are convinced that’s just the tip of the iceberg. After all, China has 1.3 billion people – about 20 per cent of the global population — and the middle class is growing. Chan says those consumers are hungry for the kind of food Ontario grows – which he calls “safe, clean and secure.”

It’s worth noting this mission is especially geared to small- and medium-size producers, companies and commodity groups. These include the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, Beef Farmers of Ontario and Pelee Island Winery.
They’re the ones who, as a group, hire the most people in Ontario.

They’re also the ones who are being counted on to meet Premier Wynne’s challenge to the agri-food sector, to double its growth rate and create 120,000 jobs by 2020.
And finally, they’re the ones who make extensive use of agri-food research, the kind the province supports at institutions such as the University of Guelph. In fact, the university’s president, Franco Vaccarino, is on this trade mission, much to the delight of minister Leal.

“The University of Guelph has a reputation for research that will be a very important aspect of this mission,” Leal told those involved in Wednesday’s teleconference. He noted the university’s expertise in food safety and traceability is of interest in China, but emphasized the door is wide open. “We welcome all concepts and questions the Chinese may have,” he said.

Time will tell how the mission impacts exports. Last year Ontario agri-food exports to China were worth $830 million – impressive for sure, but still relatively small considering agri-food contributes $34 billion a year to the province’s GDP.

There’s a lot of room for growth. And despite some obstacles, this trade mission is being counted on to help the economy move ahead.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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