Mad Cow’s Circle within Circles

The crisis in Canada’s beef industry will require finesse, diplomacy and a fundamental re-thinking of our relationship with the United States.
Published on August 9, 2003

Anyone who thinks the current crisis in our beef industry a simple matter is just not paying attention.

On the surface, the United States is protecting the safety of its food supply, by being ultra-cautious in the wake of one infected cow in Alberta. This demonstrates the “precautionary principle” in action: when faced with risky circumstances, you must be extremely careful. Of course, if taken to its logical conclusion, this guide to action would mean that we do nothing, ever. Precaution gone wild, if you will.

But the BSE issue is not that simple. It is happening in the context of Canada’s woeful, UN-based foreign policy. Ottawa treats our major trading partner with contempt and often acts against its interests. When an issue like BSE comes along, the U.S. is already predisposed against Canada.

It may be fun to thumb your nose at the bully next door, but the wealth generated by U.S. trade is directly responsible for the quality and standard of living we Canadians enjoy. Without it, we can’t afford luxuries like Medicare. That painful lesson is now apparent.

In terms of beef supply, the United States is close to self-sufficient. Our 5-7% share of their market can be easily replaced. If the 45 million acres of land “retired” by the United States in their Conservation Reserve Program were brought back into production, they could make up any shortfall and meet all of Canada’s beef needs, to boot. Coincidentally, U.S. ranchers are enjoying record prices that came along at exactly the same time as BSE in Canada, and are prepared to fill the gap. The strengthening U.S. economy can easily absorb any increase in prices.

Add to this mix the powerful myth of the American cowboy, the unabashed patriotism of cattle ranchers and their strong support for George Bush, who just happens to own a “li’l ole ranch” himself. Even before the border closed, they were looking askance at Canadian beef.

The science of BSE in Canada has been worked out. Teams of international experts have approved the measures taken and all the prerequisites for re-opening the border have been met. That leaves politics.

We were all cautiously optimistic because, spats aside, we ultimately expect the U.S. to play fair. But we forgot about Japan, the U.S.’s largest foreign beef market. The Japanese told the Americans that they must completely eliminate any chance that Canadian beef might be mixed in with exports to Japan. “So sorry, Canada,” said the U.S. “We just can’t take a chance with our largest market, so we regret that the border must remain closed.”

How could Japan, a relatively small player in the beef game, have so much clout? Remember that Canada shut its doors to Japanese beef after that country’s BSE scare. Presumably Japan now has the same controls in place as Canada, yet our border remains closed. Tit for tat, in other words.

But another shoe has dropped. Japan is proposing a 50% increase in tariffs on imported beef, a suggestion which has the U.S. sputtering with rage. The stupidity of the Japanese government has handed Canada a golden opportunity to exit this mess.

Let’s hope we’ve learned some lessons. We ought to treat the U.S. with respect and nurture our trading relationship. Our country, especially western Canada, depends on it. We need to understand that, unlike Canada, the U.S. has real and serious global responsibilities and that a contrary foreign policy will have domestic consequences.

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