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BSE in Canada is not a "Blessing"

by James Goodman
Wisconsin dairy farmer

Editor's note: This commentary was written on December 11, prior to the discovery of BSE ("Mad Cow" disease) in a cow in Washington State earlier this week.

(Saturday, Dec. 27, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Traditionally, the end of the year brings out lots of lists; gift lists, New Years Resolutions, bad things from the past year and good things or "blessings" we should all be counting. Apparently, not wanting to be left out, the December issue of the Wisconsin Agriculturist featured the Editors "Count your blessings" and the Executive Editors "The good, the bad and the wacky" columns. Interestingly enough, both seemed to think that the discovery of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in Canada was a good thing since it contributed to raising beef prices for Wisconsin farmers. Is this how low we have sunk? Is our last best hope as farmers that our survival will be achieved through the misfortune of other farmers?

I wonder if the Editors at the Wisconsin Agriculturist ever considered the consequences BSE will have on Canada, or the US for that matter? First, one must consider the potential for a repeat of the scenario seen in Britain when BSE jumped the species barrier and has infected over 140 humans to date. I wonder if they ever considered what it was like for farmers to watch while their cattle were destroyed when they were suspected of being infected? I wonder if they ever thought what kind of economic effect the discovery of BSE has had on Canada? A Reuters study estimated that as of November the Canadian beef industry has lost $2.5 billion, the country's 46,000 cattle farmers have lost $2.3 billion in equity and support industries such as truckers, veterinarians and feed companies have lost $1.4 billion. Farmers are expected to loose an additional $650 million over the winter due to loss of markets for their cattle. Calls for the destruction of between 500,000 and 750,000 more cattle are being considered, as is the establishment of a taxpayer funded compensation pool for farmers, beginning at $92 million.

Canadaís loss is our loss as well, since for example, Japan has said they will accept only US beef imports that are guaranteed to have had no contact with Canadian cattle. And how can we be sure that we will never have to face the prospect of BSE in the US? The cause of BSE, feeding rendered animal by-products back to cattle, is a much more widespread practice in the US than it ever was in Canada or for that matter Britain. Like Canada, who last year tested a total of 3300 animals for BSE out of 3.4 million slaughtered, testing in the US is woefully inadequate. We tested just under 20,000 head out of a total of about 35 million slaughtered. Compare that with the European Union who in 2002 tested 10 million head out of 40 million slaughtered. If you want to find something you really do need to look for it.

Beef cattle prices in the US are low essentially for one reason; three giant corporations control over 80% of the cattle slaughtered in the US. The monopoly they hold keeps our prices low, not Canadian farmers. Throughout the BSE crises in Britain our press downplayed the potential for problems here and were never seriously critical of re-feeding rendered animals in the US or our inadequate testing for the disease. No, the US farm press has seldom been critical of the large corporations that keep farmer incomes low in the US, in Canada and the rest of the world. If they were really concerned about the incomes of farmers they would not rabidly support the corporate agenda for food irradiation, Free Trade agreements and elimination of Country of Origin Labeling. They would not insult us by telling us that farmers are the reason for low prices, or that we over produce even as the big four import more beef, or that we need to get more efficient.

To the editors of the Wisconsin Agriculturist, I would say, no we are better than this, we as farmers have a moral base and do not take comfort in the misery of other farmers, we believe, like Jim Hightower says "everybody does better when everybody does better". Perhaps this is why we have a way of life, not just a job. You can try, like all the multi-national agribusiness corporations; to divide us and pit farmer against farmer, make believe money is all that matters, but it wonít work. And please, donít try to tell us we should find comfort in the misery of others, it is nearly Christmas you know.

James P. Goodman
Wonewoc WI