Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led a Canadian delegation to China recently to discuss a range of bilateral issues, first and foremost being trade. Canada and China have been engaged in exploratory talks regarding the possible commencement of free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with China. Although an agreement to start formal FTA talks was not reached, the Canadian delegation still raised a range of agriculture issues with their Chinese counterparts on this trip, including biotechnology. Agriculture biotech issues were also high on the agenda during a trip to China led by Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay in November. With China trade issues in the news, it is worth examining why this is so important to Canada and to agriculture in particular.

At the 2017 GrowCanada conference, speakers Ted Fishman and the Hon. Stockwell Day – both experts in Canada-China relations – gave delegates their view of why China matters so much to Canadian agriculture. Three themes emerged: the staggering size of the market, how rapidly it is growing and modernizing, and the desirability of Canadian products for increasingly affluent Chinese consumers.

The numbers are staggering. China alone has 21 per cent of the world’s population, with an incredible 100 cities surpassing a population of one million, and five cities with over 10 million residents. The rapidly growing Chinese economy, still expanding at an impressive 6.3 per cent annual clip, has meant rapid urbanization, as people leave rural areas for greater riches in the cities. In order to move them around, China has plunged forward aggressively on infrastructure projects, with port, highway and high-speed rail construction moving at a blistering pace. Perhaps most impressive of all is the ambitious “One Belt, One Road” transportation link being built by the Chinese throughout Asia, the largest infrastructure project in history. The goal is simple: create an Asian economic superpower with China as the central engine.

All of this has fueled a desire for high-end agriculture products, a need that Canada is uniquely positioned to fill.

Canada is the fifth largest agricultural exporter in the world and produces some of the highest quality crops in the world, with a reputation for consistency.

China is a net food importer and poised to be the largest agricultural importer in the world by 2020. In fact in 2016, China accounted for $5.6 billion in Canadian agri-food exports and there’s significant room to grow. Its growing middle class wants more protein, fueling a need for animal feed, and high quality agriculture products such as wheat, canola, fruits and vegetables.

So what’s the opportunity? Canada is well-positioned to continue to help China meet its agricultural production and food security goals, but improvements must be made to minimize trade barriers such as long approval timelines for biotech crops to facilitate predictable, transparent and science-based agricultural trade between China and Canada.

As it stands today there is, on average, a six-year lag between Canadian and Chinese approvals for new biotech crops. Since a crop typically won’t be commercialized in Canada until it has been approved by major trading partners, China is dictating when Canadian farmers gain access to new technologies.

Maintaining and increasing agricultural production depends on using the latest technologies to manage the challenges of pest pressures, water shortages and other environmental factors that farmers are continually faced with. On top of that, the latest innovative technologies help farmers grow sustainable crops, protect the environment, drive Canada’s economy and feed the world.

In Canada, products of plant biotechnology are regulated by a world-class system. Both Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are responsible for ensuring biotech crops are safe for people and the environment. Health Canada clearly says that biotech crops are just as safe as their conventional counterparts.

People around the world have consumed trillions of meals containing ingredients from biotech crops over the last two decades and there has never once been a credible case of illness associated with them. Furthermore, the global scientific community overwhelming agrees that biotech crops are safe.

Those experienced in relations with China know that patience and taking the long term view are important virtues. In that light, the efforts made by the government of Canada in recent weeks on their trips to China are part of the longer term goal of enhancing access to a market vital for growth in Canadian agriculture.

Dennis Prouse, vice-president of government affairs, CropLife Canada