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Mad cow demands various actions

By John Stencel

If there is a positive side to the Dec. 23, 2003 detection of a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in the United States, it is greater consumer awareness of how their food is produced.

Following the announcement of the BSE positive cow in Washington, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union joined other Farmers Union state organizations and National Farmers Union to discuss how to restore consumer confidence in the U.S. beef supply and to minimize economic damage to U.S. cattle producers. We issued a news release outlining these measures, which included expediting the national animal identification system, holding meat from BSE-tested cattle until the test is confirmed negative, removing sick cattle from the food supply, and other steps to shore up our large-scale meat production and processing system.

However, something I believe is equally meaningful to both consumers and family producers is a discussion on the U.S. food production system. Now is a prime time to consider whether our current food production system is adequate for the needs of people and the environment. In the middle of the last century, American agriculture began a transformation—led in large part by land grant university research—to larger-scale, less diverse, increasingly commercialized farm and ranch operations. We were told bigger was better, diversified operations were no longer feasible, use of agribusiness products would increase profits, and exporting our excess would increase rural profitability.

On this advice, producers mechanized everything so they could increase production and decrease hired labor. We sold the egg layers and milk cows and got rid of the sows, so we could concentrate on growing a single crop. Of course, we had no manure to fertilize the cropland, so we had to buy chemical fertilizer. Since we no longer had livestock, the only option was to market the grain we grew. And, with our bigger is better philosophy dominating the agriculture sector, we had few options for marketing the grain that we had to sell in order to pay the bank for the loans taken to expand and mechanize.

Whereas the producer 50 years ago would likely know the origin and detailed history of every animal on his property, it took weeks for authorities to track the origin of the BSE-positive cow in Washington. I do not advocate a return to the horse-and-buggy era but I do believe we need to rethink the best way of producing food in this country.

Is bigger really better or might not a little higher quality be better? Since Dec. 23, niche market meat producers tell me they have been deluged with calls from consumers wishing to buy meat from known origins. University research needs to be conducted to benefit production models favored by consumers, not those preferred by multi-national agribusiness conglomerates.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and trade proponents need to quit telling producers that prosperity is tied to increased exports of agricultural products. Data simply do not support the premise that an increase in export levels results in higher farmgate prices. No one opposes exports, but maybe we should quit seeing them as the savior to our financial woes.

Now is the time to listen to our customers—the U.S. consumer. We need to know what kind of product they want and how they want it produced. Now is the time to find out what they want and give it to them.