Eastern Protectionism Costs the Alberta Rural Economy $25,000,000 Annually
The government of Alberta spends millions of dollars annually in attempts to discover and develop viable methods of increasing agricultural income. The irony is that, while they are looking at ideas -- mostly questionable, risky and marginal – on how to add value to existing products of agriculture, and to entice investment from abroad in industries that pollute and degrade the rural environment, major potential production increases in honey production escape their attention. Potential growth in Alberta honey production is principally prevented by only one thing, and that is a federal regulation barring importation of replacement stock from Alberta's traditional and natural supplier, the mainland USA.
In comparison to most other agricultural activities, honey production is a low-investment, low-cost, high-return, renewable resource activity, and one with a uniquely benign environmental impact. Beekeeping provides significant employment for youth and unskilled workers in rural areas, and is a potential source of income to communities throughout most of the crop-growing districts of Canada. Moreover, beekeepers operate in co-operation with, and not in competition to, the other farming activities taking place in a district, and can make a major contribution to the economy of any rural community, but protectionist measures are preventing growth.
Although beekeeping is appreciated and supported by governments and analyzed by statisticians, the immense potential that is going to waste annually in Western Canada, and probably much of the East as well, has been overlooked. A great deal of the potential bee pasture in Alberta goes totally unutilized or underutilized, due to lack of bees and due to the complexity and riskiness of currently available management methods. This due principally to the difficulty, the risks, and the complexity of maintaining large scale operations when bee supplies are uncertain, as they have been since the traditional supply of quality bulk bees and queen bees was cut off by the closure of the mainland US border to importation of bees in the mid-nineteen eighties. Up until that point, beekeeping was an expanding and thriving industry in Alberta.
Economists speak of using 'comparative advantage' to benefit two trade partners and lower total production costs for both, and for consumers. The traditional relationship between California and Alberta is a good example. Beekeeping is ideally suited to a north/south co-operation for most efficient use of resources in each region. Southern regions winter bees very well, and can produce bees surplus to their own needs cheaply and reliably early in the season, in plenty of time to send starter hives or packages north to build up the populations necessary to make large honey crops. Northern regions have very productive bee pasture and long days in summer, but winter survival of bees in the north is unpredictable and costly. Thus, beekeepers in Alberta and across the Canadian prairies had a close and longstanding, mutually beneficial, relationship with California beekeepers, until border closure. For some, that relationship continued even after the closure; unofficial importations continued, although greatly reduced, with large numbers of queens finding their way north, with no apparent ill-effect on bee health in Canada.
After border closure, many formerly successful beekeepers who were unwilling or unable to source bees via this underground railway, or settle for inferior (but legal) stock from Australia and New Zealand, have gone broke and quit. Moreover, growth has been constrained, and barriers to entry or survival have become insurmountable for many who previously could manage a simple, seasonal beekeeping operation. Now New Zealand and Australia are no longer free of pests.
When we evaluate where we are today, we always look back to the mid-nineteen eighties when the very largest Alberta bee operations had two or, maybe three thousand hives, maximum. In the meantime, as in other agricultural businesses, things have changed immensely in the honey industry, and now -- among the survivors -- bee operations with four to ten thousand hives are not uncommon. Some have over ten thousand. At the same time, though, the number of beekeepers has plummeted, since the business has become much more difficult.
Compared to the mid-eighties, our roads are now much better; trucks are much better, and carry larger loads; extracting equipment and buildings are better; management and education levels are better; financing is better, yet our industry has not grown in the way other intensive agriculture industries have since that time. We have stagnated in spite of all these advances in infrastructure and technology. Few new bee operations have started in recent years. Entire regions of prime bee pasture are unoccupied, and older beekeepers are retiring without successors. This state of affairs is obviously the product of the ongoing embargo against US mainland bee supplies. If a reliable and competitive supply of bees were now available, and had been for the last five years, I'm betting that Alberta would have 350,000 hives, not the 240,000 that I understand we have now. Profit levels would also be higher, and risk much lower. We'd have more young operators, and our industry would be in much better health.
Unfortunately, bee industry organizations in Canada are largely dominated by small operators with a vested interest in preventing expansion of the industry and the competition that might ensue from that expansion, and by salaried civil servants who think in terms of risk, rather than in terms of opportunity. Such voices have dominated discussion, and influenced governments. The focus of discussion has been on what is good for a relatively unproductive group of self-serving industry participants, and not on what is good for communities, non-beekeepers, would-be beekeepers, and the country as a whole. Governments have been seduced -- by flawed logic-- into letting a small special interest groups like the The Canadian Honey Council (CHC) and Canadian Association of Apiculturalists (CAPA) dominate the entire country and the future of our industry, even against the protests of those who are willing and able to develop our industry, but are prevented by protectionist regulations. Governments have been seduced by talk of self-sufficiency (possible only over limited periods of time and in limited areas of the country) and scared by mention of diseases and pests -- even by talk of diseases and pests that are manageable, and of diseases and pests which are already well distributed in Canada -- and they are also scared, if all else fails, by that ultimate bogeyman, the Killer Bee, which has been proven to be a non-event in most of the USA.
Although Canadian authorities maintain that one import policy must apply to all of Canada, and regard the country as one homogeneous entity, a quick look at the distribution of beekeeping in Canada, and the characteristics of each diverse region, shows this is approach is arbitrary and logically unsupportable. The principal beekeeping areas in Canada are located in a number of distinct regions, geographically isolated from one another, and located in a narrow band, several hundred miles wide, stretching roughly 3,000 miles along the US border. There are several exceptions: The Peace region is a northern farming district in Alberta and B.C. that is isolated from the south, east, and west by forest; PEI, Newfoundland and Vancouver Island are isolated by water. These regions are very different from one another, particularly in climate, length of season, and appropriate management methods. The southernmost areas are so far south that their climate can be compared to some areas in Northern California, and the northernmost regions can be compared to Hudson’s Bay or to Finland.
A recent risk assessment by CFIA has examined the potential effects associated with an open border, and, although there are some potential downsides, in Alberta, the largest and most successful operators, and the young blood in our industry can see that the benefits from accepting US bees -- under protocols or not -- far outweigh the costs. Those who are on top of matters can see that the risks of more open trade with the US mainland are manageable, and that there is -- and has been -- a tremendous opportunity for expansion that is being throttled needlessly by the embargo. Albertans are not to only ones suffering, either; many Canadian beekeepers who have waited a generation for an opportunity such as the one currently presented by high honey prices, have been frustrated in their ability to cash in, due to unexpected winter losses and the very restricted supplies of (inferior) replacement stock available from the approved sources.
Although the bees from Australia and New Zealand have served to fill some of the needs of beekeepers in Canada since border closure, those sources have always been expensive, unreliable, and have never been able to meet demand. In recent years, Australia and New Zealand have been found to have some the very pests Canada fears from the USA, yet, mysteriously, their bees continue to be approved for Canadian imports while US mainland bees continue to be rejected, in spite of proposed import protocols far stricter and more costly than those imposed on Australia and New Zealand. Bee health is claimed to be the issue, but if bee health is truly the issue, serious susceptibility to chalkbrood is typical of Australian package bees, and levels of up to 30% are not unusual when these bees are installed in Canada, yet this serious deficiency has never been addressed. No matter how they are coddled, and no matter how expert the beekeeper purchasing them, Australian 2-lb packages cannot be expected to make pollination strength in Alberta by July. In contrast, historically, California 2-lb packages always made production strength in time and were the mainstay of Alberta beekeeping.
In Canada we are held back not only by lack of bulk and queen bees in season, but also hampered by limited access to improved strains of bees currently under development in the USA. Mite and disease-tolerant bees are being developed and tested in the US in response to today’s challenges, yet Canada can access only limited supplies of these genetics -- only semen and embryos are permitted -- and even those limited supplies are subject to import fees, and hogged by insiders. Moreover, after these special bees are propagated, the offspring are not available to Canadian producers in any quantity, nor in any practical and timely manner, since queen production and package bee production in Canada is limited to very small, long-season areas near the US border. Ironically those areas are the parts of Canada which are most infested with the very pests the embargo is supposed to be keeping out of Canada!
Some claim that mites have devastated the US industry and that we, as Canadians, are fortunate to be protected from these scourges by our import prohibitions, however the same import prohibition also ‘protects’ us from the many economic advantages that free trade with our traditional partners in the Western USA (California is closer to me by truck than Ontario) offered us in the past. Although the US industry has suffered declines in hive numbers in the last decade, any honest assessment will show that the problem has been a high US dollar and low, low honey prices along with urbanization of agricultural areas. (We were spared the pain they suffered by our cheap dollar in recent years, which boosted our return compared to theirs, by 35% or more). Although there are areas of the US that have problems maintaining their bee populations, it is clear that in the package producing areas, bees are in abundance and healthy and with the improved price for honey, the industry there is flourishing. The dreaded pests have not laid them low, and bee health is simply not a problem.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), and their minions, claim that the regions of this country which have voted democratically -- after much informed discussion and consultation -- to demand access to importation of mainland US bees, cannot have access to US mainland supplies because the decision must be made by all of Canada, and that, if the border is opened to bee importation in one region, the entire border must be opened, all across Canada. This is obviously disingenuous, if not an outright lie, since the border was originally closed in two stages, over two years. The original closure was for two years, and out of fear of tracheal mites, which -- as it turned out -- were already in Canada.
At that time, Alberta went along with a temporary precautionary closure on a closely split vote, expecting the measure to be short-lived. Since then, various excuses have been found for continuing the prohibition, and enforcing it on Alberta, and some of those who have most benefited from this breach of free trade frankly admit they will never agree to opening the Canada/US mainland border, even regionally, no matter what the disease and pest situation on either side may be, and no matter what measures are taken to prevent or control transmission of pests.
Misinformation and fear mongering are characteristic of the arguments to maintain a closed border. One common claim is that, if Alberta gets access to US bees, Saskatchewan or other provinces will then not be able to refuse to import bees. How can this be? I know for a fact that I not permitted to sell bees, or equipment, into Saskatchewan, Manitoba, or Ontario -- or possibly other provinces as well. I know this because I have to turn down customers from these regions, and the Provincial Apiculturalists from several of these provinces have informed me of that fact, personally. How, then, can anyone claim that a US supplier can do what I cannot? Moreover, an 18-year-old can bring liquor into Alberta across the US/Canada border, but not into Saskatchewan -- AFAIK -- so there is already a mechanism in place to apply different rules for different provinces. What is going on here?
Another bogus argument, a favourite for stirring up emotions, is that, if the Canada/US mainland border is opened to queens and/or packages, nothing can then be done to prevent predatory and faceless US migratory beekeepers from running up into Canada with semi load after semi load of bees in hives, and laying claim to prime bee pasture during the honey flow, then escaping back south across the border with all our honey as soon as the weather gets cool, while Canadian beekeepers stand there watching helplessly. Horsefeathers!
Although it is possible that someday, after discussion and study, Alberta beekeepers might wish to partner with US operators, the likelihood of US parties running up and back in a season without Canadian control, Canadian partners and Canadian employees is unimaginable to anyone who has examined the issue. The Alberta Beekeepers Association -- with the aid of federal and provincial governments -- investigated this claim several years ago, and the conclusion was that Canadian federal and provincial labour, licensing and tax rules, along with local ordinances, would prevent any predatory excursions, even if the longstanding and separate prohibition against bringing bees on comb north across the border somehow fell, along with the more recent prohibition against all bee traffic. The ABA board took that information to CHC, and were shouted down. No one would listen.
What many fail to remember is that before border closure, a number of Americans ran operation in Alberta and Northern B.C. and Saskatchewan. These individuals were welcome and integral parts of our associations, and they contributed far more than they ever took, in terms of knowledge, innovation, and training of new Canadian beekeepers and community participation. There was a constant seasonal exchange of people between the Western Canadian provinces and the US, particularly California, and families intermarried across the border. The embargo has been very disruptive and unjust to these people, some of whom lost their businesses, and many hard feelings remain. Unjustified extension of the embargo to suit narrow interests in distant regions rubs salt into those wounds.
Canada produces far more honey than it consumes, thus honey is an important export commodity. In the past, Alberta produced a third of the entire Canadian crop and Alberta honey has always been in demand internationally due to its superior colour and flavour. In the past decade, while Alberta has been crippled by the embargo, our percentage of. Canadian production has fallen. I suppose this, in itself, can be taken as a strong indicator of injury, and failure of the current regime to address and meet Alberta’s unique needs.
Although there is no lack of pasture, capital, or experienced and capable beekeepers in Alberta, the lack of reliable bee stock, available in a timely manner, is holding us back. We’re told that Western US beekeepers can and will provide what we need to regain our production and to expand. All that is holding us back is one import prohibition.
Anyhow, that's enough on this for now, but I think that the Alberta government, when they wake up and realise that limited concerns about bee health are overriding serious concerns about industry health, will make sure that this thinly-disguised protectionist embargo is overturned, and possibly even press to eliminate all barriers to bee traffic between Canada and the USA. Extreme shortages this spring, coupled with recent seizures at the US border, and prosecutions of queen smugglers by federal agencies with encouragement by a few self-serving bee industry busy-bodies, has changed the nature of this matter to a struggle for justice, freedom, and self-determination
Alberta has co-operated and compromised with defensive, small-thinking interests, and gone along with this nonsense and self-deprivation, long enough. No more Mr. Nice Guy. It is time unshackle this industry and let it fulfill its potential.