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Are you going to eat that?

by Richard R. Oswald
Missouri farmer

(Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- An old saying that Rome wasn't built in a day has been applied to everything from highway systems to governmental policy. Producers of agricultural goods who grow this nations food and fiber know that policy, once built, seldom stays the same for long. US farm policy is like a living thing that rises from its own ashes each time political visions have fiery collisions with real time situations.

Producer groups have long touted the benefits of domestic production. Among those benefits have always been safety and wholesomeness. As farmers and ranchers, our views of our own hard work are not always the same as when observed from across foreign borders. Without a doubt, protectionist blinders affect the sight of all leaders, worldwide, who seize on visions of health and safety to control access to sensitive markets. Many times, the desired direction of policy cannot be achieved until one country or another loses control of events. That loss of control can then be used to alter policy in ways that cannot be disputed in world courts.

In May, Canadian leaders dropped the ball with disastrous results, but their momentary bauble couldn't hold a candle to UK leaders no-show response to mad-cow. This spring, our own government cast the first stone in the Canadian situation where few were without sin. Our righteousness only lasted about six months. Even the Japanese, who this year quickly banned North American beef both times isolated cases of BSE were discovered, cannot claim to be free of original sin. The Japanese version of infectious prion disease is by far more common than anything ever verified here, but discovery of BSE on this continent has allowed the Japanese to implement policy in keeping with closet fears of globalization in much the same way it was used by Canada against Japan in an earlier incident.

The real danger to beef producers in all this is in the suggestion that certain beef products may not be safe for consumption by any living thing. To accept that premise in lieu of effective government leadership and regulation is to concede that policy has changed. Therefore someday someone may ask, if no food animal can be fed meat or bone meal, why then can the human animal continue to consume similar products. The meat and bonemeal in question lie just a fraction of an inch away from that cherished T-bone steak.

Such precedents are real, and they carry weight not just in matters of livestock production but for those of grain as well. Currently, our government has a hands off policy toward the production and marketing of GMOs. There has never been any conclusive proof that genetically modified organisms are anything other than safe. On the other hand, our government has never really considered all the possibilities. Governments of other nations do not universally share our views. This lack of agreement among nations has allowed another instance of blinder-based policy formulation that has resulted in loss of some US producers access to certain foreign markets. The next government to drop the ball on this issue will determine the direction of policy for decades to come. Third world farmers, anxious to gain access to our markets, may realize their fondest dreams if our own government fails to respond with the right leadership.

The case of the Canadian cow in America points out the need for US food guidelines to be science-based, and for the science used to be well funded, researched, and thoroughly thought out by a diverse and independent group of overseers without benefit of corporate or political influence. This must happen soon, before we drop the ball and allow policy to be formulated as the result of past mistakes, faulty regulation, and knee-jerk reaction.

Richard R. Oswald
Langdon, MO