Bottles of Canola Harvest oil, manufactured by the Canadian firm Richardson International, line a shelf of a Beijing grocery store on March 6, 2019. Beijing suspended shipments from Richardson International earlier this month. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

TORONTO — It’s the cusp of planting season, and Canada’s canola farmers are nervous.

On Tuesday, China’s General Administration of Customs revoked the canola-seed export license of Viterra, a grain handler based in Regina, Saskatchewan. Viterra is the second Canadian company to have its canola-seed export rights revoked, after Beijing suspended shipments from Richardson International — Canada’s largest exporter of the crop — earlier this month. The Canola Council of Canada, an industry group, said last week that Chinese importers have mysteriously stopped buying Canadian canola seeds altogether.

Even before these developments, Canadian canola traders had complained of longer-than-usual customs inspections and trouble getting import permits for their product.

China, which accounts for 40 percent of Canada’s canola exports, said its reasons for blacklisting Canadian canola are “scientifically sound and reasonable.”

But experts and some in the Canadian canola industry believe that China’s decision is driven by politics, not science. They fear canola has become collateral damage in a broader geopolitical conflict between the United States and China that has left Canada caught in the middle.

What is China’s problem with Canadian canola?

China claims that it has found “harmful organisms” and pests in Canadian canola seed shipments.

At a news conference, Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said, “The Chinese side has taken these precautionary quarantine measures to ensure safety.”

What’s the larger Canada-China issue?

Ties between Canada and China reached a new low in December, when Canada detained Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of China’s Huawei Technologies, at a Vancouver airport pursuant to an extradition request from U.S. officials, who claim that she and Huawei violated U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Canada has said that Meng’s arrest was a legal matter and that it was simply following the terms of its extradition treaty with the United States. China, which promised “severe consequences” if Canada did not release Meng, arrested two Canadians in China on vague security charges in a move that is widely believed to be retaliatory. A Chinese court sentenced a third Canadian to death after a hurried retrial on drug charges.

Earlier this month, Canada said it would move ahead with an extradition hearing for Meng, who is out on bail in Vancouver.

Lynette Ong, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said the canola issue and Meng’s detention are “definitely” linked.

“There is no hard evidence,” Ong said, “but there are enough precedent cases where China has punished trading partners for behavior they do not like.”

After the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese democracy advocate, China halted imports of Norwegian salmon, citing disease. Two years later, it restricted banana imports from the Philippines, claiming the limits had been imposed for health reasons, though growers said it was retribution for a flare-up in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

China is “strategically ambiguous” about its reasons for the restrictions, Ong said, to make it difficult for countries to challenge it before the World Trade Organization or other international dispute settlement bodies.

What is canola?

Canola is an oil seed crop that is used to make cooking oil, animal feed, cosmetics, biodiesel fuel and more.

It is also a Canadian invention. Plant breeders in Saskatchewan and Manitoba developed it during the 1960s and 1970s by breeding out the most undesirable traits of rapeseed. The word “canola” combines “Canada” and “ola,” which its inventors said sounded like “oil.”

Canola is one of Canada’s largest agricultural exports, and the country’s agriculture department estimates that it contributes more than $26 billion (in Canadian dollars) to the economy each year.

Has China complained about Canadian canola before?

Yes.

In 2009, China restricted imports of Canadian canola, citing concerns about blackleg, a fungal disease. Scientists from both countries worked together to largely eliminate the risk of the disease.

In 2016, China again raised concerns about Canadian canola and blackleg. It asked Canada to cut the dockage rate — the amount of extraneous material such as stems and pods that ends up in shipments — from 2.5 percent to 1 percent.

Canadian scientists were unconvinced that changing the dockage rate would mitigate the blackleg risk, which they said was minimal. Some suggested that the move was an attempt to protect China’s domestic canola crop, which had a bumper harvest that year.

The two countries resolved the dispute, signing an agreement stating that the trade in canola would continue.

What do canola farmers say?

Canada’s canola industry disputes China’s claims, and Canada’s agriculture minister said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency conducted investigations and did not find any harmful pests in its shipments.

Some believe the developments are motivated entirely by politics.

“We think this is part of a larger Canada-China issue,” Jean-Marc Ruest, vice president for corporate affairs and general counsel of Richardson International, told Canadian Broadcasting Corp. News.

What is the Canadian government doing?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been careful not to draw a direct link between Meng’s arrest and the canola issue, but he said he is taking the issue “very seriously” and may send a high-level delegation to China.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who grew up on a canola farm, said this month that she does not see “any scientific basis” for China’s decision.

Read more

Justice Dept. charges Huawei with fraud, ratcheting up U.S.-China tensions

How much do Chinese people love Huawei? Just ask these cute singing children.