BSE, farmers and rural communities: impacts and responses across the Canadian Prairies
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The emergence of the zoonotic disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Canada resulted in a severe agricultural crisis. However, little is known about the ways in which farmers and rural communities were affected. The overall objective of this study is to characterize and better understand the impacts on and responses of farmers and rural communities as they relate to this crisis. Research was undertaken in strata throughout the diverse three Canadian prairie provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan and Alberta – by employing surveys and focus groups. Results indicated there were numerous direct and ‘spillover’ impacts on farmers and rural communities resulting from the BSE crisis. Declines in cattle prices, herd equity and cash flow, often resulting in the need for bank loans, farm credit or off farm employment, as well as emotional and psychological stress were all experienced by farmers as a result of BSE. Importantly, many additional factors such as adverse weather and market volatility compounded the impacts related to BSE, adding to what was already a crisis situation for many farmers. These impacts were not restricted to farms but, rather, extended into the surrounding community fabric in the form of financial and social stress. Results further indicated government policies contributed to the impacts and the effectiveness of farmer responses related to BSE. A longer-term policy shift that has embraced agro-industrialization and entrenchment into the global marketplace has resulted in clear disparities between the biggest and smallest players in the beef industry and agriculture as a whole. This was illustrated in the ways in which governments responded to the BSE crisis, favouring the needs of the largest farmers and agri-businesses over those of smaller-scale, cow-calf producers. This policy shift and response has left the Canadian beef industry, family farmers and rural communities more susceptible to the emergence of similar future risks. A more inclusive approach to risk research and policymaking that meaningfully involved farmers and their rich, longer-term local knowledge might help mitigate similar risks that will inevitably confront agriculture in the future.