One sick cow is a food story

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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January 30, 2004: When the United States Department of Agriculture announced North America's second animal with mad cow disease, the first news was all about borders slamming shut and the consequent impact on markets. McDonald's shares fell five percent. U.S. Cattle prices tumbled almost 18 percent as a $3 billion export market blinked out. There was talk that growth in U.S. fast food outlets was at risk.

Within days the U.S. media coverage shifted dramatically. Almost every non-government organization with peripheral connections to the U.S. food system published essays; wrote letters to the editor or appeared on talk shows. Their issue was not the market impact of one cow with a fatal disease. It was not a business story. It was a food, health and environment story. Even the would-be presidents in the race for the Democratic nomination made pronouncements about the food system.

Incidentally this was quite different from the Canadian experience with one sick cow seven months earlier. Most Canadian stories were based on official information from government agencies, spokespeople for farm and food businesses and key politicians like Albert's Premier Ralph Klein. To this day, BSE is a business story in Canada but not in the U.S.

What makes one sick cow in the U.S. a food story?

First, conventional U.S. agriculture is a long way down the road to industrialization - considerably further than Canada. The U.S. food system is becoming a throughput machine where the dominant values are technology, growth and the abandonment of restraint. It is a system that prizes efficiency, competitiveness and maximum production above all else. It is a system that, internally, lacks the ability to see the risks of taking cow parts and rendering them into meat and bone meal as feed for the next generation of livestock.

Second, we eat our environment. Food is the result of a complex system that involves feedback loops, where nutrition is more important than quantity, where unintended consequences and unpredictable developments are commonplace. Think drought or grasshoppers or mealybugs or mad cow disease. We eat in a complex relationship with creation. The discovery of one sick cow in Washington drives home just how complex our food system has become.

Third, consumers are enabled to be more risk-averse because of the very nature of our modern food system. We tend to be blasé about the risks that we choose to take. Give us some control and many of us are risk-takers. Our modern food system delivers abundant choice, but choice is not a substitute for control. Choice allows consumers to abandon any product that has a whiff of risk associated with it.

Industrialization, complexity and choice make one sick cow a food story.



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