Saskatchewan, Canada, June 22, 2003: 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
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
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
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
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 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
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.
© Paul Beingessner, email@example.com . The author
is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation
farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.