Canada’s first mad cow was found in May 2003, resulting in the banning of Canadian beef in 34 countries around the world. The American ban was particularly devastating, with 80% of beef exports and nearly 100% of live cattle exports going to the U.S. The discovery in December 2003 of an infected Alberta-born cow in Washington state halted all talk of reopening the border to live cattle (CBC News, March 29, 2005). On December 29th 2004, the US Department of Agriculture announced that the border would reopen to imports of young cattle on March 7, 2005. Just days before this deadline, the U.S. lobby group, R-CALF (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) convinced a federal judge to agree to an injunction, on the basis that “Canada doesn’t adequately test for mad cow” and that “reopening the border would have economic consequences for U.S. producers”. The latter argument, although not at all logically connected to the former, does offer some insight into the real reasons for the dispute.
There is absolutely no weight behind the argument that Canadian standards for handling or testing are any lower than the U.S. In fact they are the same. In the Fall 2003 issue of L’Humanité, we published an article by Rob Lyon, dealing with the mad cow crisis in the immediate aftermath of the ban. Lyon explains that “the two countries have a fully integrated cattle market. Beef is raised in the same way under the same conditions in the two countries” (L’Humanité issue #14). “It has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with economics and globalization.”
The countryside is not immune to the laws of the capitalist marketplace. Small-scale ranchers and farmers have found it near impossible to compete with the large corporate farms that can invest millions in expensive technologies to produce more food in less time. In order to keep their prices competitive, the individual farmer is forced to make similar production increases. Often this is not an option. With increased overhead cost and with crop yields getting smaller and smaller and bringing in less money each year, family farms are going under at an alarming rate.
The outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Britain in1986 was a clear and direct result of this capitalist race to the bottom. “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” (Lyon). This way, there is no need to pay for healthy and environmentally-friendly disposal of animal remains. And of course, it is cheaper to feed animals their cousins’ carcasses than it is to buy them hay or land to graze on. This win-win situation for big business was unfortunately also the ideal means for the spread of BSE, and has been the death of many family farms and in the case of small-scale stockgrowing—the death of an industry. In 1997, the Canadian government ruled that cattle could no longer be fed food made from rendered cattle remains (CBC News, January 14, 2005). Once this means of transmission had been discovered, this seemed like a fine band-aid solution to the immediate problem of stopping the spread of BSE.
However, it does nothing to address the greater problem, or answer the important question – why has food quality and safety taken a back-seat to profit? In a society where production is motivated by need rather than greed, the idea of producing food (or anything else) in an unsafe, inefficient or environmentally unsound way would be absurd. But the current world system, the capitalist system, is driven by profit and depends in fact on ever-increasing profit. The “race to the top” is in fact a perpetual race to the bottom, in which those that try to take a conscientious approach get left behind. Small farms and local agriculture are becoming a thing of the past and now “live cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens must be transported long distances – causing great stress on the animals and lowering the quality of meat” (Lyon). Of course, once it’s processed, the meat must travel long distances again, so it is pumped full of chemicals to keep it sellable at the other end. The first Alberta mad cow to be found in the United States came from a herd that had been split up and shipped as far as Texas and Mexico. The cow’s carcass then found its way to Vancouver, where it was turned into chicken feed. The cow-fed Vancouver chickens were then shipped to Alberta to be made into feed for cattle and pigs. “Compound this with the appalling conditions in the huge slaughter and rendering plants” writes Lyon, “and we have our crisis.”
But remember the newspaper headline – “Discovery seen as ‘light at end of tunnel’ if U.S. can no longer claim to be BSE-free”. As Canadians we are supposed to be celebrating. If they have mad cows too, we’re clearly back on a level playing field. Whether it actually makes any difference will depend on political and economic interests in the United States. The original border closure had very little to do with mad cow or food safety, and everything to do with an over production of beef in North America at the time. “Cheap and tasty Canadian beef was hurting the American cattle industry” (Lyon). The American ruling class wanted to guarantee the domestic market for its own beef. Now that the guise of a BSE-free U.S.A. is gone, the various interests are more blatantly obvious. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, during his visit to flood-stricken southern Alberta, jumped at this bonus publicity opportunity, telling reporters that “there’s no excuse, whatsoever, not to have that border open” (Edmonton Journal, June 25, 2005). R-CALF insists that the border must stay shut, but the more business-savvy in the U.S., including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are calling for the border to be reopened.
The ruling class maintains a careful balancing act – between global free trade and protection of national interests. As long as there is a demand for a product that the national industry cannot produce enough of or does not produce at all, the capitalists are happy to keep the borders open – as wide open as possible in fact, because this will help to ensure markets for their own exports. In times of economic crisis however, the national ruling class falls back on protectionist measures, blocking trade by imposing tariffs on foreign goods or closing the border to a given industry. This is the motivation behind almost two decades worth of free trade agreements, (NAFTA, WTO, G8, FTAA, etc …), which supposedly guarantee foreign markets for goods, by making these protectionist measures illegal. We see time and time again that these agreements and laws, like all bourgeois laws, apply only when they suit the interests of the more powerful ruling class. Canadian imperialism is no mouse, but like the rest of the world, we are certainly in bed with the American elephant, and the elephant generally gets to call the shots. The American ruling class has happily imposed tariffs on Canadian softwood and on steel from most of the world. Even for America though, the protectionist path is no path to go down. It may cause some temporary relief for domestic industry, but in the long term it is incredibly harmful. Attacking foreign markets only hinders the markets for American products, as other countries retaliate, putting up similar barriers. In his 2002 article “The Softwood Lumber Dispute: A case against protectionism”, Mike Palecek compares protectionism to “two people pushing each other under in a desperate attempt to keep their own heads above water” (L’Humanité issue #10). The catastrophic results bring the contradictions of world trade to the fore, leading to economic stagnation or a world slump, which is in nobody’s interest.
Protectionism often serves to divide the workers of different countries. In the shadow of America in particular, many workers fall into this nationalist trap, not realizing that in a global economy, it is not possible to isolate one industry in one country. In the case of mad cow however, the small scale farmers on either side of the border recognize that they have more in common with each other than with the big corporate farm interests behind the ban. They are both facing the erosion of rural life and fierce competition that they simply cannot keep up with – basically, extinction. “Their struggle is the same” (Lyon).
There is no solution under capitalism for the problems faced by small scale food producers. In the same way that huge multinationals like Wal-mart are putting the conscientious neighbourhood grocer out of business, the massive corporate farms are putting the conscientious small scale farmer out of business. The aim of the capitalist game is to produce more, more quickly, at lower cost … at whatever cost. We have all heard horror stories about the unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the factory farms and in many of the meat rendering and packing plants in the U.S. and Canada. The cramped quarters, unhealthy animals, and poorly trained, overworked, and underpaid labourers raise all kinds of questions about food safety and quality.
As long as food production is governed by the anarchy of the capitalist market, the quality of our food will only get worse and worse. In a socialist system where food is produced not for profit, but for people’s nourishment and enjoyment, it would be completely illogical to produce food in a way that endangers the health of the population. There would be no need to cut corners in order to reduce cost and increase profit.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has appealed the judge’s injunction decision and the court date is set for July 13th. From his strange bourgeois academic vantage point, Agriculture Economist Danny Leroy warns correctly that the protectionist sentiments behind the May 2003 border closing are not gone, and that “there are weeks and maybe months of legal wrangling ahead” (Edmonton Journal, June 28, 2005). While the big Bush-supporting economic interests at R-CALF face off with the big world trade economic interests in Washington, farmers on both sides of the border will be asking important questions, like “what are we going to do about BSE?” “When are we going to discuss the deteriorating quality of food?” and “What are we going to do when we can’t hang in there any longer and the farm finally folds?” Within the confines of capitalism, which long ago outlived its usefulness for the vast majority of the world’s population, the only answer is despair. But the farmers and workers in Canada, America and around the world are not limited to thinking inside the box. Examples are springing up around the world of working people, both urban and rural, thinking very much outside the capitalist box. In the most advanced cases in Latin America, they are demanding nationalization and people’s power. In these examples lies hope for the future.
A farmer and worker-controlled food production industry would ensure that all the people of the world have access to healthy and tasty food, produced in a safe and environmentally sound way. With this goal in mind, the farmers, workers, and students of North America must band together with their sisters and brothers in Central and South America, and KICK OUT THE CAPITALISTS!