For Canada’s Freeland, Canola Battle With China Gets Personal

(Bloomberg) -- The latest twist in Canada’s bumpy relationship with China is hitting close to home for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

Freeland, who grew up on a farm in Alberta, says she took a jar of canola from her dad’s fields to China during a 2016 trip to emphasize how much the crop means to Canadians, who invented the cooking oil.

“I thought, ‘sometimes it’s good to make a message personal,”’ Freeland told a room of grain professionals gathered in Montreal for the annual Canola Council of Canada convention Wednesday. “We had a supper with the Chinese premier and I actually said ‘look, we really care about this, this is personal for us, our farmers are growing this canola and we need access to your market.’"

For Canada’s Freeland, Canola Battle With China Gets Personal

That market could be at risk of closing after China restricted its canola purchases from Canada’s top exporter, Richardson International Ltd., citing non-compliance and pest issues. Canadian food inspectors haven’t identified any pest or bacteria of concern, which has sparked worries the decision could be the latest flare-up in the diplomatic spat triggered by the arrest of a top Huawei Technologies Co. executive on Canadian soil.

Farm Girl

Freeland, who says she swathed acres of canola and other crops in her youth, vowed to work alongside the industry to get through this. Canola -- or “Canadian oil” in effect -- takes on added significance for Freeland since it was created in the 1970s as a derivative of rape seed. It’s used as livestock feed and crushed for oil in salads and cooking.

“We have to just be united as a country and really work through this,” she said. “I have tremendous confidence in the quality of Canadian canola."

Freeland, who led Canada’s negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement, said she might even get back to the farm one day. Over Christmas, she told her 74-year-old father she’d like him to continue farming so that she and her husband could potentially take over when she leaves politics.

Her dad wasn’t convinced. He said he was too old, she was too young. And that perhaps she wasn’t smart enough.

“I said ‘well dad maybe I’m not as smart as you, but I do try hard,”’ she told a laughing audience. “He said ‘no, but it’s really hard to be a farmer today.”’

“I really know that,” she said. “The Canadian farmer today needs to be one part commodity trader, one part agronomist, one part mechanic and nowadays one part computer programmer.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.