Region 1-District 2 | Opinion

Food and Agriculture – Lessons from the Pandemic

With the current corona virus crisis taking place on our planet, as farmers and as consumers, we should be ready to support health authorities everywhere in the world. This is also a situation that is conducive to reflecting upon the existing food system and on a new approach to it all.

To date, we have only a little bit of information on the origins of this microorganism which, we are told, is the result of mutation of a virus of animal origin. Many think it could have come from bats, dogs, or other domestic animals, whereas a growing number of people blame intensive agricultural and livestock production for the numerous viral drifts that we have witnessed over the last few years.

I have no training that would allow me to confirm the falsehood or the veracity of these allegations. However, although we may know only a few things about viral mutations, we are well aware of the facts surrounding the emergence of viruses in intensive livestock operations over the last 40 years.

I could tell you about Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome, commonly referred to as PRRS. Before the advent of a vaccine and the possibility of purchasing animals that have tested negative, this virus had enough time to impose a terrible toll in hog operations in many parts of the planet: thousands of young hogs died prematurely and entire breeding herds became sick.

I could also evoke Mad Cow syndrome which triggers Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease once it transfers to humans. Known as scrapie, this disease was first associated with ovine operations, then propagated to cows after it mutated, at a time when the main concern was to increase profits and cows were fed sheep offal as a source of cheap protein.

What about Foot-and-Mouth Disease? This disease, which took England by storm in the early 2000s, caused the slaughter of thousands of cloven-hoofed animals and the loss of millions of dollars for agricultural producers.

The scenario is similar with Porcine Parvovirus, which plagued producers early this decade, and greatly slowed the growth of hogs before the discovery of a vaccine that mitigated its effects.

Add to this sad track record Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea, a disease that was thought to be well under control and which nonetheless reappeared in Canadian hog herds a few years ago. The epidemic spread from animal to animal after using the blood of slaughtered sows – a product with great immunological properties – in feed for piglet nurseries. For the time being, the only known remedy is to slaughter all the piglets in the infected herd and processing a few small pigs into a mash for sows which, it is hoped, will then develop some antibodies that they will transmit to their progeny via the mother’s milk. Up to now, only one hog farm has been affected in the Atlantic provinces, and  blood as an ingredient in animal feed is henceforth forbidden by law.

Finally, let’s talk about the African Swine Fever virus, which also reappeared on North-American farms in recent years. This disease has forced producers to be extra cautious, given the fear of suffering its catastrophic effects.

I’m sure that these different viral diseases represent only a few of the numerous pathogens that threaten the agricultural world. Given that animal operations are well-supervised by veterinary services and great specialists of the animal world, we must nonetheless question ourselves about the agricultural methods that we use in our part of the world.

As I’ve mentioned several times as representative of the National Farmers Union, it is imperative to ask ourselves about what we are eating: who produces our food, in what manner, and with which chemical and biological inputs?

For decades, both the National Farmers Union and the New Brunswick Federation of Agriculture have warned our governments about the limited capacity of our province to feed itself, but our requests have fallen on deaf ears. Our governments have always preferred to focus on export products, favouring commodities like potatoes, blueberries, cranberries, and a few other products. Farm organizations have not stopped calling for a “buy local” policy, but each time, they come up against the argument from political leaders and bureaucrats who are convinced that we represent too small a market.

All the stakeholders in the agricultural community know full well that in case of border closures, the province would have food for only two to five days at best and would experience food shortages in the majority of foodstuffs, with the exception of surplus goods destined for export.

New Brunswick only produces a tiny amount of the meat we consume and, with the exception of chicken, the province has no federally inspected slaughterhouse. It is also very clear that the few small provincial slaughterhouses meet less than 10% of our needs in meat. Same goes for vegetable crops: even in summertime, we only produce a low percentage of the fresh fruits and vegetables found on store shelves.

Nation-wide, we produce precisely the quantity of chicken, eggs, and milk that we consume because these commodities are subject to supply management. In contrast, in regard to meat, Canada has an excess. Half of the beef we produce is exported. As for pork, two-thirds of the production is sold abroad. The situation is the same with cereal crops; a large number of our products are dispersed around the world. However, in terms of vegetables, we are extremely dependent on southern markets.

We know very well that if foreign workers don’t come to Canada, there would be only few fruits and vegetables on store shelves this summer, and the Trudeau government is also very aware of this.

With the conclusion of the 1989 Free Trade Agreement and other subsequent trade agreements, we have created a system whereby human exploitation remains acceptable. How many people would want to take on a difficult occupation which is subject to the whims of the climate, for a starvation wage, and without hope of achieving a decent income, because time and again one must always offer the lowest possible prices to be able to compete in the global market?

Far be it from me to propose the idea that we should change our habits, such as the vegans would have it, where everything comes back to plant-based agriculture. I’d rather raise awareness at this point when quarantine is required, as so many of us have more time to read, to inform ourselves, to consult computerized databases available at our fingertips in order to ask questions about the food system, to discover its mechanisms, and to begin to reflect about the foods we eat, their composition, and where they come from.

Let’s also take this opportunity to think about the use of crop protection products, about their effects on consumers, about the people tasked with applying them, about the composition of fertilizers, their health impacts, as well as on animal health, about soil degradation and, on a broader scale, about everyone’s health.

It is just as important to ask ourselves about methods of production, how animals are treated, and about the farmer’s income so as to subsequently define what we really wish for: how should the food on our plates be produced and who should be the players at the base of our food chain. Let us not forget either to take a serious look at the effects of our food system on the climate.

Thank you to all those who care about our food system, in particular Prof. Charlebois, at Dalhousie University, who informs us about food matters.

I close by quoting the Acadian philosopher Euclide Chiasson in the documentary titled Au pays des géants verts (In the Land of the Green Giants), produced in the early 1980’s by Claudette Lajoie: “Agriculture is much too important; because of the nature of production, you don’t leave that in the hands of just anybody.”

Thank you,

Jean-Eudes Chiasson
Vice-President of “Ferme Terre Partagée”