As many people now know, one case of mad cow disease, or BSE, has been confirmed in Alberta in the past week. Much of the concern about this finding is the way in which it could impact the economy due to a decrease in trade with partners within North America and Asia. During the 2003 BSE outbreak, the Canadian Government implemented the BSE Recovery Program, which provided assistance to the cattle and beef industry in the amount of $496 million due to the income losses estimated at between $7 - $11 million a day for the industry overall. It is for this reason that Canada’s beef regulations changed, and the nation was assigned a controlled-risk status with the World Organization for Animal Health – under which 12 outbreaks are allowed in any calendar year.
What this confirms for me is that our food system is broken. It profits a few individuals at the expense of many – including people, animals, and the environment more generally. It is not providing the necessary nutrition and affordability for much of the Canadian population. In fact, the majority of concern in Canada’s agricultural business is not about providing healthy affordable food for citizens, but rather whether or not our financial standing is sustainable – only further demonstrating our brokenness.
BSE is spread when cattle eat protein derived from the brains and spines of infected cattle or sheep. What we should be concerned with then is not the financial cost of finding BSE in an Alberta beef cow, but rather that BSE is a possibility in Canada and the world more generally. Even the language used to describe the animal infected lacks compassion and dignity (ie. “A statement from the CFIA said no part of the cow had reached the human food or animal feed systems”). Instead of being concerned that animals are being forced into unnaturally eating meat and even cannibalism, we're concerned with maintaining the unnatural food system that allowed the infection to happen in the first place.
The situation will not self-correct, there is no “invisible hand” to the food system that can rectify our various mistakes. Emissions from massive agricultural transportation and refrigeration, water contamination from increased farm animal density, and food deserts all need to be addressed, and perhaps most importantly today food safety and respect for workers and animals has to become a priority.
We can do it, we can we turn our currently unsustainable food system, a system that is, more often than not, unfair to workers, bad for our health, cruel to animals and destructive to our environment, into one that treats workers fairly, respects human and animal rights, nourishes our bodies and renews the land. This requires consensus on what a sustainable food system would look like and how this can be managed – beyond the trade systems and financial benefits of a system that is inherently problematic. Now is the time for regional sustainable food systems to become something more than just an offbeat alternative, and instead become the backbone of peoples food purchasing and consumption patterns.
This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.