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R-CALF beating the wrong drum

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

(Monday, June 30, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Of the voices demanding a continued ban on the import of Canadian cattle and meat products into the US, none has been stronger than R-CALF USA. This grassroots organization of farmers and ranchers has insisted that Canadian cattle be banned from the U.S. until Canada meets the World Organization for Animal Heath standard for being declared BSE free. The World Organization for Animal Heath has a seven year waiting period after discovery of a BSE case in native cattle before a country can again be considered BSE-free.

Given that the single cow with mad cow disease has proven to be just that, single, R-CALF's position on this issue looks an awful lot like political posturing. And why not? In the dog-eat-dog world of international agriculture, how can it be wrong to kick a guy when he's down?

R-CALF couches all its concern in the rhetoric of safety, of course. It talks about protecting the American consumer and the American cattle herd from BSE. In doing so, R-CALF is pandering to one of the worst aspects of modern society: the inability to judge between levels of risk. Human beings are notoriously unable to judge the risk inherent in various behaviors. If they were more competent at this, they would first of all end the reign of the personal automobile, since driving is the riskiest behavior any of us undertake.

One, or even ten mad cows that happened to enter the food chain would not generate a measurable risk to consumers. There is no scale small enough to calculate that! The British experience with BSE shows that an entire nation consuming mad cows for years had 130 cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans over a decade. The natural form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob, which occurs with no known cause, kills 60 Brits each and every year.

So, what is behind R-CALF's desire to keep out Canadian cattle? Simply self-interest. No big surprise there. Farmers and ranchers are having a tough time around the world. Rural populations are shrinking in every country. While claiming to be concerned about the American consumer, R-CALF is attacking the Canadian farmer in order to keep cattle prices in the U.S. high. Who could blame R-CALF?

American farmers should be aware that a seven year ban on cattle exports from Canada would devastate Canadian agriculture and create massive unemployment, especially in western Canada, as the meat packing and feedlot industries contracted rapidly. Tens of thousands of farmers would be bankrupt and thousands more, big and small, would close up shop. Are farmers really the enemy?

R-CALF would do well to focus on the real causes of the decline in the cattle industry. There are two that are obvious in the U.S. One is the decline in the farmers' share of the retail dollar spent on beef. R-CALF itself has correctly identified concentration in the beef packing industry and packer ownership of cattle on feed as a major problem for farmers.

A second problem for American farmers is the high cost of land. A comparable acre of pasture in Canada sells for one-half of that in the U.S. This gives Canadian farmers a competitive advantage, but, even here, land prices are generally higher than can be justified by productive capacity.

These two problems have proved immensely difficult to tackle. R-CALF has been fighting packer ownership of cattle on feed for many years with no success. Taking on Canadian farmers is a much easier battle at the moment.

Perhaps R-CALF could take an analytical page from the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA). In a June presentation to some American Congressmen, ACGA discussed farm policy over the past decade. It concluded that the big winners have been "multinational food and grain processing and exporting companies". Farm policies world-wide have left these powerful entities with "a plentiful supply of low cost commodities to process, transport and sell around the world at the expense of farmers, laborers, taxpayers and consumers".

If the ACGA analysis is correct, and it is hard to argue with, R-CALF should be looking to work with Canadian farmers, and farmers everywhere, in a radical re-examination of agriculture policy and agriculture production. R-CALF should realize that it is hard to kick someone who is down when you are also on the ground. Maybe it would be better to stand up together, and find the real culprits.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax

Editor's note: Kansan Mike Callicrate noted today that "as soon as the Canadian government approved $300 per head in assistance for Canadian cattle owners, Tyson and Cargill lowered cattle prices by approximately that amount. They have now pushed prices much lower. Finished cattle in Canada brought 9 cents per pound this week. Tyson and Cargill are profiteering on the backs of Canadian cattlemen with the Mad Cow disaster in Canada and essentially wiping out Canada's beef industry." -- RS