BSE and Devil’s Lake

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Of all the reasons why the United States is closed to our cattle, food safety is surely at the bottom. In spite of numerous studies, processes and procedures that show Canadian beef to be as safe as American beef, the border remains shut and will likely stay that way until at least after the U.S. election. With the presidential election expected to be close, neither candidate will risk the wrath of even a few voters, in spite of the fact that free and open trade in all commodities is the right thing to do.

The BSE issue has become even more convoluted. In his e-newsletter, Farm Watch, veteran Manitoba agricultural commentator, Harry Siemens, describes a recent meeting of a joint U.S. and Canadian organization of legislators known as the Midwestern Legislative Council. The group approved a resolution to open the border to Canadian cattle and stated their strong support for international protocols to deal with future animal health episodes and for a livestock identification program.

So far so good. Except the delegation from North Dakota voted against the resolution. It said, “Why should we accept your scientific evidence on livestock issues when you are not willing to accept our scientific evidence on water?” What the delegation referred to was the Province of Manitoba’s stance on the Devil’s Lake issue. What, you might ask, does a water diversion have to do with cattle exports? Plenty, it turns out.

To make a long story short, Devil’s Lake in North Central North Dakota is a closed basin with no outlet. The wet 1990s and recent wet springs have made the lake expand and swallow whole farms and settlements. When North Dakota proposed a channel to send water from Devil’s Lake into the Red River basin, both Conservative and NDP governments in Manitoba objected strongly. They stated that we do not want polluted water sent north.

Fair enough, if the water is really polluted. But the jury’s still out on that one, as Devil’s Lake supports one of the finest sport fisheries in North America. In any event, it was easy for Manitoba to object; none of our citizens were being flooded out and our opposition to the project allowed both governments to claim the environmental high ground at no cost. It’s a similar story for Minnesota and other adjoining states, which have joined Manitoba in opposition.

The trouble is that this “bad neighbour” policy is now backfiring. A fighting mad North Dakota has no interest at all in doing anything to help Manitoba or Canada. And with two senior senators, they have as much clout as California on the floor of the American upper house.

The point is not that we shouldn’t be concerned about the environmental effects of the Devil’s Lake diversion project; of course, we should. If the “sound and fury” on the Government of Manitoba website is any indication, we have adequately voiced that concern. It’s just that U.S. interests will always link all trade issues to everything else and we need to realize that any actions we take in regards to the U.S. have consequences.

I have seen Devil’s Lake and it’s not pretty. Maybe Manitoba should get out of the media and the courts on this one and have a quiet “sit down” with North Dakota to see what can be done. It’s the neighbourly thing to do.