Saskatchewan, Canada, July 2, 2004: The
political parties contesting Canada's federal election made
it clear by their absence of comment that they have no idea
how to get the American border re-opened to Canadian cattle.
Disappointing, but no big surprise.
The recipe for keeping the border closed, on the other hand,
is well known. Take one part partisan politician, Baucus and
Conrad are two brand names that come to mind. Mix this with
one part noisy farm group prone to near-hysterical statements.
Add a sprinkle of blatant disregard for international protocols
and serve, half-baked, over a steaming bed of fall election
Canadian politicians have wisely taken a non-position on
BSE and how to open the American border. After all, politicians
in the twenty-first century don't, as a rule, put forward
a vision. Rather, they lead by watching the parade form up,
and then running to the head of it. The parade of Canadian
farmers has yet to form up. Instead, there is a great deal
of milling around on the side streets, but no one seems to
know which way to head.
You can get a picture of this in the farm press. Story after
story about BSE shows how divided and uncertain farmers are.
Some urge governments and fellow farmers to invest in packing
plants. The problem is not enough capacity in Canada. Others
claim capacity is not the issue at all. Show us the markets
that will absorb any new production, they say.
Some farmers call for more cash to be funneled to producers,
to stave off mass failure. Other claim this is a waste of
government resources, which should be directed toward increasing
packing capacity or other broader measures.
Meanwhile, a group made up of some of the largest feedlot
operators in Alberta says it is considering challenging the
Americans' refusal to open the border. The group is discussing
the launch of a Chapter 11 NAFTA challenge, claiming the decision
to keep the border closed stems from political, not health
reasons. Such a challenge can take years to work through and
costs could be as high as $10 million.
The Canadian Cattlemen's Association does not support such
a move. It claims the chance of a win is low and warns the
Americans might consider such an act as "hostile".
(Oh well, they're too involved in Iraq to launch an invasion
There are also two sides to the testing argument. Some farmers
and processors are saying we should not be afraid to test
all cattle going to slaughter for BSE, or at least those going
to sensitive markets such as Japan. Many other farm groups
are adamantly opposed to widespread testing, saying it will
set up a chain of events that will entrench the need to test
all cattle, at a substantial cost. It will also, they say,
annoy the Americans, who might be obliged to follow suit.
The controversy over these ideas makes it hard for farmers
to pick a winner. Perhaps this is why the recent rallies designed
to raise the profile of the BSE issue have failed to draw
the numbers supporters wanted. Who knows which of the competing
bandwagons to jump on?
As if things weren't complicated enough, the announcement
came last week that a second cow in the U.S. is suspected
of having BSE. The American government is dealing with this
in its usual open fashion, refusing even to identify which
state the cow came from.
If they are confused today, Canadian farmers had better pick
a course of action soon and get on with it. The new federal
government will look to farmers and farm groups to point out
the way to go. Even pointing in several directions at the
same time is better than keeping your hands in your pockets.
In the dog days of summer, farmers would do well to attend
a few meetings and find a tree to bark up. The current situation,
with Don Quixote farmers riding off in all directions is a
classic example of what is wrong with farm political movements
and their adherents.
© Paul Beingessner, firstname.lastname@example.org
. The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and
third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.