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Cattle grow fatter as border arguments grow thinner

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer and writer (Tuesday, June 24, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Canadian farmers, feedlot operators and most everyone connected with the meat processing industry are waiting anxiously to hear the good news that the Canada/U.S. border is reopening to allow Canadian beef and cattle to move to American markets. They should not hold their breath.

Still, Canadians can be forgiven for wondering what else they must do in the wake of the single cow that died from mad cow disease. Every possible means of tracing the cow's origin, its herdmates, and its offspring has been rigorously followed. Thousands of these unlucky animals were destroyed. All were found to be healthy and free of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. The rendering industry, a possible suspect in the transmission of prion diseases, has been nearly shut down. The only thing left to do, and this is a longer term issue, is to make some regulatory changes. These would include a ban on feeding animal protein to other animals, an increase in the level of random testing of cattle for BSE, a greater level of inspection at slaughter plants, and even further enhancements to the traceback system for livestock.

When these measures are in place, as surely they should be, Canada will have a safety system that far exceeds that in place in the United States. In the meantime, there does not appear to be any rational reason why the border is still closed. Or, at least, no rational reason that has anything to do with health or safety.

There is a reason, however, and it is highly rational, depending, of course, on whose ox is being gored. The reason is that the closed border is paying big benefits to American cattlemen. These same cattlemen are raising a great cry which, so far, has made sure Canadian cattle stay on their own side of the 49th parallel. Canadians are quite aware of two things: the American political system seems to give American farmers much greater political clout than their neighbors to the north have, and, the American government does not require a rational reason to do anything.

It is also true that you can buy a great deal of time by hemming and hawing about something as trivial as a border closure. Secretary of Agriculture Anne Venneman can spend weeks "reviewing the issue", "consulting experts" and reading the tea leaves. If all else fails, simply ignoring the phone calls of Canadian government officials will also work.

Even from the Canadian side of the border, it isn't hard to understand the actions of American farmers. Cattlemen on both sides of the border are struggling. Livestock producers in both countries do not receive the same level of government support as that enjoyed by the grain sector. The border closure must look like manna from heaven to American ranchers. While it is true that the U.S. does not produce enough beef to fill its domestic needs, significantly higher prices might change that. It is also true that Canadian beef exports to the U.S. have grown, and the Canadian cattle herd is at an all time high. American farmers likely don't know that their country is to a great extent responsible for that increase in livestock numbers. Canadian farmers have increased livestock production because grain prices are, and have been for two decades, tragically low. Low world grain prices at one time were caused mainly by the American Export Enhancement Program and Europe's subsidized overproduction. Canadians also responded to the loss of their export rail subsidies by shifting to livestock. Those subsidies were eliminated by a government intent on going the extra mile in meeting its commitments to the World Trade Organization - commitments that the U.S. and Europe have been much slower to fulfill.

American farmers also may not be aware that the trade in livestock is a two-way street with benefits to both sides of the border. When feed grains are plentiful in the U.S. and the Canadian dollar is low, American buyers swarm across the border to buy Canadian calves. When feed has been plentiful in Canada, the situation has been reversed. Great quantities of American corn have also come north in recent years to feed Canadian livestock.

Most of all, the situation is sad, because one set of farmers is only able to profit at the expense of another group. It would be better if we could see each other as neighbors, rather than adversaries. That would be more in keeping with the reality of the situation.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net