AT THE TIME it seemed like a smart idea.
We enticed the Americans to invest big in beef infrastructure. And they did.
The Cargill Plant in High River single-handedly processes 40% of western Canadian beef. As one American president is fond of saying, it’s huge. Think agribusiness on steroids.
Big comes at a price. And the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the dark side of highly-efficient, super-sized, American-owned meat-packing plants operating in Alberta. While the province regulates large scale slaughter operations in High River and Brooks—its workers and food safety—the American owners, however, decide on the plant inputs (live cattle) and outputs (where the beef gets sold).
American meat-packers have been pushing for business as usual. And if their plant workers get sick, well… whose problem is that?
Let’s be straight on this file.
It’s been easy to shine a light on utilitarian housing blocks for transient labour in other countries, such as Singapore, but what about our own backyard?
Many immigrants are doing the jobs ‘old stock’ Canadians prefer to avoid (working in a slaughterhouse, for one). The jobs pay what they pay. And to make ends meet, plant workers and their extended families, tend to live together in close quarters and cramped housing; ‘social distancing’ is next to impossible; the risk of community coronavirus-spread is extremely high. And in the town of Brooks, 7% of the population tested positive for COVID-19.
When workers’ health and the health of the community is at risk, epidemiology trumps culture. We acknowledge some immigrant families are comfortable living in tight quarters, but there must be safer strategies during a pandemic. And it’s not like we don’t know how to house labourers in comfortable, healthy abodes. We only have to point to work camps near Fort McMurray and how Alberta’s own ATCO revolutionized how the world thinks about portable housing & trailers.
And while we’re asking you to consider once unthinkable scenarios, let’s also be straight about our over-reliance on American enterprise & infrastructure & consumers. It’s a tougher problem to resolve. We export 90% of our oil to Americans and rely on access to American-owned refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast to refine much of that oil.
It’s not all that different along the beef supply chain.
A SINGLE COW CREATED A BOTTLENECK
In 2004, Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture & Forestry was looking into bottlenecks in the Canadian meat-packing industry, a time when American consumers gobbled up “over 70% of Canada’s exports of beef products and for nearly all our exports of live cattle.” Why was the Senate interested? Just days before Christmas in 2003, an Alberta-born cow residing in Washington State was discovered to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). This single case meant that the U.S. border was closed to Canadian cattle.
Senators listened to stories of ranchers losing their lifetime earnings; banks seized cattle that could no longer afford to be fed; breeding stock was lost.
The senators also posed (and answered) a critical question:
“Why did one single case of BSE cause such havoc in the beef industry in Canada? –primarily because this industry, which generated more than $7.5 billion in farm cash receipts in 2002, was built on exports almost exclusively to one country.”
In 2005, the Senate asked more questions about Canada’s meat packing business: the consolidation (at that time, four facilities were processing nearly 80% of our cattle); the dependency on American infrastructure; the scarcity of value-add capacity in Canada. Government bailouts can dull the pain ($1.6 billion of government aid helped alleviate the pain of the BSE crisis & the Alberta Government just announced an aid program for livestock producers) but government rescue is hardly a sustainable strategy, the Senate concluded.
SECURING CANADA’S ENERGY & FOOD
Canada has enjoyed a good run with free trade. There’s been continuous prosperity for decades, but supply chains and our underlying assumptions about reciprocity with the United States have been rattled by the pandemic. The attitude of America First isn’t likely to wane, regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election in November.
We’ve been looking SOUTH to export markets for so long, we’ve paid scant attention to EAST-WEST and NORTH.
When Eric Newall launched Syncrude and the oilsands more than 50 years ago, the aim was “securing Canada’s energy future”. Perhaps that aim hasn’t really changed; we’ve just been obsessed with getting our commodities to export markets & taken for granted the value of energy security and food security to our own nation. The upside of this pandemic may be its ability to illuminate—even for a moment—what really matters.
We need to be self-sufficient.
Being self-sufficient doesn’t mean we become inward looking or isolationist; its just accepting that the only people who care about us is us. It’s a tall order especially knowing all governments will be in deep financial doo-doo when the pandemic finally calls it a day. Being self-sufficient means we have to be willing to pay more for less.
But there’s comfort in the fact that Alberta CAN be self-sufficient—in intellectual capital, food, energy, forestry products and a whole whack of other resources. Unlike many places, we have the means to take care of our own survival. We just have to act.
If the last provincial government figured out how to create the conditions for micro-breweries to flourish (give brewers the right to brew; access to distribution; don’t over-regulate), why can’t we do the same with meat-packing? Consumers in Alberta think nothing of paying a premium for Hutterite chickens. Will Albertans fork over a few extra bucks to buy flagship meat produced in this province?
What are the consequences if we don’t look after our own first?
Entering into free trade with the United States was a clever move, but realpolitik has made the current agreement nearly unrecognizable.
And when we encounter the next chokepoint, what comes first: our sovereignty or export markets?
America was never supposed to be an unreliable partner, let alone crazy in a crisis, but what is the plan—what is Alberta’s plan—should things get worse?
We’re asking you these tricky questions because, like you, we thought someone else was paying attention to the enterprise (rather than kicking cans around in different directions).
We’ve seen the people in charge. You have too. It’s the person you’re looking at in the mirror.
This column is the consensus opinion of the writers Donna Kennedy-Glans, Fawna Bews & Don Hill. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to BEYOND POLARITY — scroll down on your phone or tablet, or look to the right in the panel beside this post. Enter your email to FOLLOW, a wheel spins, hamsters get fed.