Agriculture

HERE’S THE BEEF

Ottawa and Canadian cattlemen battle the U.S. ban

BRIAN BERGMAN September 20 2004
Agriculture

HERE’S THE BEEF

Ottawa and Canadian cattlemen battle the U.S. ban

BRIAN BERGMAN September 20 2004

HERE’S THE BEEF

Ottawa and Canadian cattlemen battle the U.S. ban

Agriculture

BRIAN BERGMAN

CARSON HARTY speaks of life on the land with a mix of reverence and foreboding. Harty spent the past 14 years ranching, most recently running a small cow/calf operation near Onanole, Man., 200 km northwest of Winnipeg. “Farming is hard, but it’s also kind of a love affair,” he says. “When you pull a calf out of a cow and get it breathing, there’s an adrenaline high that can’t be replaced. Farming is the biggest gamble in the world—and the biggest addiction. You can have the best crop, the best animals, but then you have to gamble on whether you can get a fair price for your product.”

By this spring, the stakes had become far too steep. The price Harty could get for his calves dropped precipitously after the Americans shut their borders to Canadian beef following the May 20,2003, discovery of an Alberta cow suffering from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease. Meanwhile, the cost of feeding his animals kept escalating. Harty became depressed, even suicidal. “All you hear is the negative side of the news,” he says. “You start to think death would be a release.” Instead, Harty sold off his stock at firesale prices and started anew, buying a small

coffee shop in Onanole. He has no regrets. “All of my friends are stressed to the hilt,” says the 51-year-old. “They don’t know if they can make it through another fall.” That’s the question on everyone’s lips in cattle country these days. Sixteen months after the initial BSE scare, the U.S. border remains shut tight to live cattle exports from Canada, resulting in almost $2 billion in annual lost sales (for the past year, the U.S. has accepted boneless meat cuts from catde under

‘WE ARE seeking to

reposition the industry so it can return to profitability, with or without the border reopening’

30 months of age, animals considered too young to contract mad cow disease). A glut of older cows that would normally be culled— the industry’s polite term for slaughtered—is backlogging the system, continuing to depress cattle prices as ranchers bring their animals to critical fall auction sales. Last week, federal Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell

moved to provide some relief, announcing $488 million in new post-BSE aid, all of it focused on making the Canadian beef industry less dependent on the U.S. market over the long term. “This package represents a shift in direction,” Mitchell told reporters in Calgary. “We are seeking to reposition the beef industry so it can return to profitability, with or without the border reopening.”

The measures are a direct and enthusiastic response to a multi-pronged survival strategy presented to Mitchell last month by the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, representing some 90,000 beef producers. While regaining full access to the U.S. market remains a top priority, both Mitchell and the CCA are embracing what they describe as “madein-Canada” solutions to the mad cow crisis. There will be new funding to significantly expand slaughter capacity within Canada, reducing the number of animals being exported on the hoof and potentially keeping more of the post-slaughter jobs and profits at home. Ottawa also intends to get more aggressive about marketing Canadian beef beyond North America. More immediately, ranchers and feedlot operators will be offered financial incentives to hold onto younger cattle until they can be profitably marketed. At the same time, Ottawa is planning a fairly modest cull of older cows and bulls, taking out no more than 60,000 to 90,000 animals from the system—between one and 1.5 per cent of the mature beef cows in Canada.

The backdrop to all this is the continuing deadlock over lifting the U.S. export ban. Despite George W. Bush’s vow this spring that he wanted to see the border opened “as soon as possible,” nothing of substance has happened. With protectionist forces in the U.S. becoming increasingly vocal, industry insiders now agree the beef ban will almost certainly remain in place until this November’s presidential election—and perhaps for months, or even years, after that.

Many thought this would all be over by now. Last fall, political and industry leaders talked confidently of the border opening in early 2004. Those hopes were dashed in late December when an Alberta-born Holstein cow in Washington state tested positive for BSE. A Montana-based group known as R-CALF (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund) seized on the discovery to insist

Canadian beef was -ently unsafe. This spring, R-CALF won ourt injunction that effectively blocked a move by U.S. authorities to expand the types of meat products allowed across the border. Around the same time, 10 Democratic senators, including presidential candidate John Kerry, wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman urging her not to lift the ban on Canadian live cows, lest the U.S. become a “dumping ground” for a product few other countries want. Some Canadian cattlemen fear this doesn’t bode well should Kerry win the presidency.

Lately, ranchers and feedlot owners have started taking matters into their own hands. Cam Ostercamp, a cow/calf operator from Blackie, Alta., is president of the Beef Initiative Group. Ostercamp is trying to convince ranchers in the four western provinces to help finance a large, producer-owned packing plant that would concentrate on slaughtering older cattle and marketing the meat to countries other than the United States. One aim is to appeal to nations currently shunning our beef because of health concerns. If for example, Japan insisted all slaughtered

cows be tested for BSE, the plant would comply. Canadian governments and beef industry groups have so far rejected such rigorous testing as unnecessary and costly. Ostercamp thinks they’re wrong. “We need,” he says, “to give the global marketplace a product they have no excuse not to buy.”

A LEGAL challenge

alleges the U.S. border closure is based upon ‘protectionist policies rather than science’

Rick Bonnett, a rancher and feedlot operator from Ponoka, Alta., is another grassroots activist. Bonnett says his family’s business, which once fattened and finished up to 70,000 head of cattle a year, is now lucky to handle 20,000 and loses money every day the border remains closed. Last month, Bonnett and a handful of other Alberta-based producers filed a series of claims under Chapter 11 of the North American Free

Trade Agreement, seeking $150 million in damages from Washington. They allege the border closure is based upon “protectionist policies rather than science” and represents an unfair advantage for U.S. producers. While such a legal challenge could take years to resolve, the group is hoping to put political pressure on the Americans to open the border long before that. “It’s time,” says Bonnett, “to stand up for ourselves.” Bonnett, who attended Mitchell’s Calgary news conference, is not impressed by Ottawa’s latest gambit, which follows more than $1 billion in federal and provincial BSE aid packages since May 2003. He says politicians and cattle industry groups haven’t been nearly aggressive enough with their U.S. counterparts. He also thinks the proposed cull is far too timid given the current glut of older animals nobody wants. “Right now, we’re sitting on a time bomb with all these cattle,” says Bonnett. “If they throw money at us this fall and the border still doesn’t open, the taxpayer better be ready to throw double the money at us next spring. It’s a real dilemma.” I7Î1