The presence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease in one cow in Alberta was the spark that exploded the economic crisis on the prairies. The banning of Canadian beef imports in 34 countries around the world has revealed a profound crisis in the economy of the prairies and has exposed some of the major problems in food production the world over.
The farming and cattle crisis is at root a reflection of the crisis of capitalism world wide and a result of “globalization”. The problem, in Canada and worldwide, is that food is not produced on the basis of need and safety or for the greater social good. It is produced to make a profit. The reason the food industry has poisoned us so many times before – in Britain with their mad cow and foot and mouth epidemics in the late 1990’s and in Japan just a few years ago – has always been for money.
The fundamental problem in all of this is that the small, individual ranchers and farmers are being supplanted by large, corporate farms. The laws of the market of course still apply to rural areas. The small, family farms simply cannot compete with the large scale corporate farms. In order to keep the cost of their product low and compete to sell their product on the same market as the corporate farms, the family farm must buy newer and more expensive technologies to produce more food in less time. This in turn causes a staggering increase in overall production costs for the small farmer, and with crop yields getting smaller and garnering less money each year, more and more family farms are going under. It is obvious that the corporate farms can afford new machinery and workers for cheaper, hence small family farms are closing up and corporate farms are moving in, buying up land with ever increasing speed.
In order to increase the amount of milk from cattle, protein had to be added to their diets. To do this we turned cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens into cannibals by feeding them the remains of processed cattle and sheep and by introducing antibiotics and hormones into their food supply. This has lead directly to the development of mad cow and its entrance into the food chain, causing a horrifying death among humans and animals alike. Besides this, it is much cheaper to feed animals the remains of already processed animals than it is to buy them hay or pasture. Once again this is a problem of money. Rather than disposing of the carcasses in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner, it is cheaper also to turn the carcasses into feed for other animals. This was largely a move by large corporate farms to keep costs down. The problem of money is basically the root cause of all food production problems and disease on farms in Canada and around the world.
With small farmers, ranchers and feedlots going the way of the dodo bird and the ever increasing presence of corporate farms, live cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens must be transported long distances – causing great stress on the animals and lowering the quality of meat. Once processed, the meat is then transported over long distances – full of chemicals and other products to keep it from spoiling.
This can be clearly seen in the case of the mad cow in Alberta. Parts of the herd to which the cow belong had been shipped all across North America – to Texas and to Mexico.
The carcass of the cow had been shipped to Vancouver, where it was turned into feed for chickens. Some of these chickens from Vancouver are in turn shipped to Alberta for feed for cattle and pigs. Compound this with the appalling conditions in the huge slaughter and rendering plants and we have our crisis.
The BSE crisis plus the fact that the prairies have experienced one of the worst droughts in history, and one of the biggest grasshopper invasions ever has brought the prairies to the verge of disaster. The crisis is slowly seeping into all aspects of rural life – feedlots, fuel companies, truckers, farm equipment retailers, lumberyards, buffalo, elk and deer breeders, sheep producers, rendering plants, pet food producers, and grain farmers have all been seriously affected. A recent survey reports that 8 out of 10 agri-businesses have been affected, with nearly all of them reporting the same thing – decreased sales, cancelled orders, inability to export, increased costs and layoffs. Small towns are in a serious cash crunch as well. Here everything from car dealers to clothing shops to furniture stores are reporting a drop in sales from 20%-40%. On top of this, about 10% of many county taxes, over $1 million dollars in some counties, is yet to be paid from last year as a result of the severe drought. The point is that rural workers and farmers don’t have the money to buy things anymore, and a severe drop in consumer spending like we have seen all across the prairies will in turn cause more economic troubles.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the present crisis and border closure is not just about mad cow and food safety. There are, as with most things, profound political and economic processes at work. In general there is an over production of beef, at least in North America. The US response of a border closure, has more to do with protectionism than with safety and concern. In many ways, as many US and Canadian farmers have realized, the case of BSE in Alberta was not the reason for the border closure, but only the excuse they were waiting for. As in the case of softwood lumber, cheap and tasty Canadian beef was hurting the American cattle industry. Canada exports 80% of its beef and nearly 100% of its live cattle to the US. The two countries have a fully integrated cattle market. Beef is raised in the same way under the same conditions in the two countries. Our beef is the same and is just as safe as American beef, this in and of itself reveals the true nature of the beef ban. It has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with economics and globalization.
The Canadian government has been reluctant to change policies for fear that the two industries will no longer be harmonized. The main issue is feed – we must ban the use of other animals and marrow as a source of feed for animals, something the Canadian and American governments are afraid to do, because of the huge lobby of the beef industry which counters with arguments of money (once again) – saying that it would be too expensive to feed animals with other sources of food (such as pasture land and hay). The destruction of smaller farms in favour of corporate farms plays out across nations as it does within nations. American farmers are much more heavily subsidized than their Canadian or Mexican counterparts. As a result American fruit, grain and meat production is gobbling up its competitors in Canada in Mexico. Mexico imports a lot of its fruit now from America at very high costs which most people there can’t afford – meanwhile Mexican fruit production, which could provide local fruit for cheap, is going under.
Another problem is the Japanese ban on Canadian and American beef. Japan will not accept American beef until the US can prove that Japan will not be receiving Canadian beef by accident. The American border to Canadian beef will not be re-opened until the Japanese border to US beef can re-opened, which will only happen so long as the American border remains closed to Canada. The last thing the Americans want to do is threaten their strong economic ties with Japan.
More protectionism on both sides of the border is not the response to take and will in the end exasperate the situation further. In this, American and Canadian farmers along the border have shown the way forward. They recently held a joint solidarity barbeque along the border of Alberta and Montana. Most farmers were fully aware that the ban had everything to do with protectionism and nothing to do with food safety. The farmers from the two countries realize that they face the same issues and problems (the erosion of rural life and the disappearance of the family farm, incursion of corporate farms, lack of money etc…) and have the same aspirations. Their struggle is the same.
The solution to the problem lies in the socialization of food production in North America and worldwide. Many of us have either read or heard about the appalling conditions of work in many of the meat packing and rendering plants in the US and Canada. Most of these plants rely heavily on cheap, poorly trained immigrant labour, where working conditions look more like they did about a 100 years ago. Workers are made to work long hours in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. These conditions in turn cause many questions about the safety of food production in these plants.
It is clear that we must nationalize and socialize the agro-chemical companies, meat production centres, and supermarkets that are destroying farmers’ lives. As long as food production remains under the thumb of capitalism and the market our food quality will get worse and worse and we will only see more BSE and related crises. In general a move
towards smaller and more local food production would go a long way in helping to assure the quality of food. Rather than buying meat that is 30-40 days old and full of chemicals from some plant in miles away be it from BC or Texas, it would be much nicer and safer to buy fresh food from a local market. We must initiate a voluntary socialized plan of production for farming and cattle/meat production that could protect farmers’ jobs and security as well as securing the safety of our food production and guaranteeing safe healthy food for the worlds’ poor. These corporations are only concerned with the bottom line – profit. They don’t care about safety or sanitation, nor the effects of all the chemicals and genetic engineering that have entered the food chain. The workers and farmers themselves must monitor the safety and sanitation of food production. Food must be produced for greater social need and good rather than for profit. This will be the only way to move out of the present food crisis world wide.