Edmonton

Brexit effect on Western Canadian wheat exports uncertain, experts say

Wheat industry experts say they plan to lobby the federal government and trade negotiators for a new trade deal with a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

Wheat was Alberta's top export to U.K. in 2018

Durum wheat field near Montmartre, Saskatchewan. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Wheat industry experts say they plan to lobby the federal government and trade negotiators for a new trade deal with a post-Brexit United Kingdom.

"I expect, from our intelligence, that they have already started that," Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission, said on Friday in an interview with CBC's Radio Active.

Canada and Britain exchange nearly $30 billion in goods per year, and though the country is not Canada's top wheat buyer, experts say it's a key customer for western Canadian farmers.

Wheat was the top product exported from Alberta to the United Kingdom in 2018, after crude petroleum and dried legumes.

According to the Alberta government's Export Tool, which is based on data from Statistics Canada, the U.S. Census Bureau and other international trade databases, Alberta exported $45.3 million in wheat to the U.K. that year.

"We are one of their primary suppliers of high-quality, high-protein wheat that goes into things like fluffy loaves of bread," said Cam Dahl, president of the industry group Cereals Canada.

Warburtons, the biggest bakery in the U.K., sources much of its wheat from Canada.

Dahl said the industry is uncertain about the future but hoping for an imminent tariff-free agreement.

"The freer the trade, the better it is for Canadian farmers," he said.

One hurdle to that goal, according to Carlo Dade, the director of the Canada West Foundation's Trade and Investment Centre, is Britain's shortage of experienced trade negotiators. 

When the country was part of the EU, this task was outsourced to Brussels.

"They're desperately training up staff and recruiting people from New Zealand, Australia and Canada," Dade said. 

"They don't have a lot of people and they're starting from scratch."

Steve said the new negotiations could end up providing Canada an opportunity.

"Potentially the UK would be less likely to buy wheat from other European countries, for example," he said.

Brennan Turner, CEO of the online grain marketplace FarmLead, said the weeks ahead offer a chance to "reset the scales" and promote the quality of Canadian wheat.

"At the same time, trying to preserve the status quo as much as possible is probably going to be the best route for both sides," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news and files for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.

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