Structural Adjustment in Canadian Agriculture


From: "AEN" <>
Subject: news- Business Edge June 5-11 Vol 3 -- Mad Cow was a Disaster
Waiting to Happen - Andrew Nikiforuk
Date: Fri, 6 Jun 2022 16:29:02 -0600

Mad cow was disaster waiting to happen

We're reaping the consequences of factory farming and negligence

By Andrew Nikiforuk

For Business Edge, June 5-11/03 Vol 3,#23

The mad cow crisis that has unsettled Alberta's $15-billion beef industry is a lesson in absolute madness. Before it's all over, this gut-wrenching trade disaster could rewrite the province's rural economy as well as its political culture.

To date, the mayhem wrought by one mad cow clearly shows just how far regulators, government and careless industrialization policies have let cattlemen down. It also underscores a number of damnable realities:

1. Never say never. Throughout the 1990s, itinerant professional vandals at the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency (CFIA) mocked consumers or farmers concerned about BSE.

Meanwhile, individuals such as Claude Lavigne and Penny Greenwood, two civil servants ostensibly on guard against this infectious agent, repeatedly said that it can't happen here; that it's "a European disease" and that there is " no risk."

Larry MacDougal, Business Edge Careless industrialization policies have let cattlemen and their industry down, says Nikiforuk.

This is exactly what U.K. officials did for a decade before BSE unsettled rural Britain, forced the slaughter of 4.5 million animals and hammered livestock genetic diversity.

As Douglas Powell, a food science professor at Guelph University, has often noted, "no-risk messages" always provoke dangerous outcomes. In fact, the arrogance and strich-like behaviour of the Canadian government have already magnified the economic and social effects of the current crisis beyond all reason.

2. In a global economy, what goes around comes around. At the beginning of the BSE epidemic in the early 1990s, U.K. scientists clearly identified the practice of high-tech cannibalism, or feeding cow bits to cattle, as the chief cause.

Yet the U.K. continued to export feed made from downer, or sick, cattle around the world until the late '90s. The trade in hormones and vaccines made from bovine roducts continued even longer. The export of contaminated feed largely explains why 20 countries, including Japan, now have a BSE problem.

It also explains why a 2001 Health Canada study concluded that BSE was alive and well in Canadian cattle. Given the murky trade in livestock products and BSE's eight-year incubation period, the report noted that "animals could be harbouring the infective agent without reaching the state of disease at which clinical signs or infectivity in brain tissues could have developed."

No global trader, in other words, can escape the global disease exchange.

3. Governments that refuse to be proactive are a greater threat to rural communities than mad cows. Despite all the recent fanfare and slaughter of exposed cattle (and most of these killings have served no public health purpose), the Canadian and Alberta governments have been irresponsible regulators. For starters, the feds didn't start a surveillance program for BSE until 1992. That's two years after the U.S. set up its program.

Moreover, the current system, which only tests 3,000 out of 3.6 million slaughtered animals a year, is grossly inadequate. In contrast, Europe tests one out of four animals. But thanks to Premier Ralph Klein's chaotic governing and indefensible promotion of game ranching, Alberta pathologists were so busy checking for mad elk and mad deer that they couldn't test a suspected mad cow for three months.

Canada didn't ban animal feed made from downer cattle until 1997.

That's one year after the Americans. Nor did Canada exclude contaminated blood products from the U.K. until a full year after the British recommended a ban. With friends like these, the citizens and farmers of Canada need no enemies. 4. BSE was never an issue until industrialization made it a public health threat. The late Richard Marsh, one of the world's foremost authorities on brain-wasting diseases, found that BSE existed in cattle populations in an unrecognized form for generations.

About one in 900,000 animals may spontaneously develop BSE. In fact, Marsh traced back several outbreaks of transmissible mink encephalopathy or "mad mink disease" to high-protein feed made from sick dairy cattle as long as 45 years ago in Ontario and Wisconsin. So strains of BSE are probably everywhere on this continent, including the U.S.

But in the last 30 years the intensification of livestock production - ably illustrated by the expansion of Alberta's feedlot industry - has increased the demand for animal protein in order to raise animals faster and more cheaply. Marsh argued for a complete ban on "the feeding of ruminant animal protein to other ruminants" nearly a decade before any government imposed one. Canada's ban on feeding cattle bits to cattle is still flawed. Feed made from rendered pigs and chickens in BSE countries can be sold and fed to Canadian livestock. And sick domestic cows can be fed to pigs and chickens, whose rendered bits can, in turn, be fed back to cattle. As many scientists
have noted, "cannibalistic feeding pathways" still exist in Canada.

5. Industrial food systems that concentrate livestock in ever-growing numbers in order to supply foreign markets create more problems than they solve. Even the UN's conservative Food and Agriculture Organization has traced a "growing threat of devastating animal diseases" back to factory farming and the long- distance transport of livestock.

Alberta has bought into this system and all its attendant vulnerabilities in the last decade. Klein not only encouraged the industrialization of the beef industry by promoting feedlots, but helped subsidize two multinational slaughterhouses. As a consequence, the province's cattle herd has nearly doubled to seven million animals. Faced with drought last year, the industry had to import feed and Alberta's famed barley-fed beef abruptly became corn-fed beef. (Cattle are no more designed to eat corn than they are fellow ruminants.)

Thanks to over-expansion, the feedlot industry was in deep financial trouble long before one mad cow came along.

In fact, the beef industry has grown so carelessly that the Canadian Animal Health Coalition recently warned that even a small-scale outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease - a trade virus with no public health implications - could shut out the province from the export market for five months and cost more than $8 billion in lost revenue.

Yet as Klein and others have chanted, "the system is working."

6. Governments that act as Soviet promoters of industry reap Soviet outcomes for farmers. Both Klein's government and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have actively promoted the "bigger is better" idea that has undone prairie agriculture and depopulated rural Canada. Both governments have also ignored and, in many cases, actively suppressed the social and public health consequences of factory farming.

And both governments have encouraged the penning of wild elk and deer, a practice that has spread disease across the prairies and that may imperil the entire beef industry.

In fact, game ranching - a Soviet diversification scheme designed by government bureaucrats - may represent a greater threat to agriculture than one mad cow. Klein and Ottawa ignored all the scientific evidence that game ranching was both an economic disaster and a disease bridge for cattle and wildlife alike - and with costly results. First came a $30-million TB epidemic that affected cattle, people and wildlife. Now, chronic wasting disease (CWD), a deadly relative of BSE, has decimated game ranches and
resulted in the slaughter of 7,000 animals.

It is noteworthy that the mad cow found in Alberta may have been born in a region of Saskatchewan "hot" with CWD. More than 100 game ranchers are now suing the federal government for incompetence and negligence. Will beef farmers be doing the same?

7. The limits of globalization are most pronounced in agriculture. Wendell Berry, a U.S. farm critic, has often noted people want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. This explains why locally produced organic food is the fastest-growing farming sector - a development no Canadian government predicted or supported. Consumers, writes Berry, "are increasingly aware that the larger and more centralized the food economy becomes, the more vulnerable it will be to natural or economic catastrophe, to political or military disruption, and to bad agricultural practice."

(Andrew Nikiforuk eats grass-fed beef from the foothills and is the author of The Fourth Horseman: A Short History of Plagues, Scourges and Emerging Viruses.)

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