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Naomi Klein and the Crusade Against Industrial Farming

21.mar.01, Douglas Powell, National Post C19

21.mar.01, Douglas Powell, National Post C19
She's everywhere. From the cover of Maclean's to the weekly column in the Globe and Mail to the latest protest against multinational corporations, to the inevitable university speaking tour, Naomi "Don't-brand-me" Klein -- Maclean's calls her the wunderkind of the new New Left -- is the crusader du jour in the big-is-bad fight.
And increasingly, in the affluent West, those battle lines are drawn on the most basic of human needs: a safe and secure food supply. Yet Ms. Klein's proclamations reveal a selective use of scientific observations that build a politically motivated thesis at odds with basic biology.
Journalists around the world, including Canada's own David Suzuki, are laying the latest corpses from measures to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in the U.K. -- most recently pegged at 200,000 -- at the pyre of agribusiness. Their most prominent political ally is newly anointed German farm minister Renate Kuenast, a co-leader of Germany's Green Party, who sees the animal disease crises of mad cow and foot-and-mouth as a chance to steer away from industrial food production and promote what she perceives as more ecological, animal-friendly and sustainable farming.
Global warming, E. coli O157:H7 in Walkerton, genetically engineered foods and now foot-and-mouth disease in the U.K. -- for Ms. Klein, Ms. Kuenast, and others, it's all a matter of government failure in the face of industrial complicity.
Science has been misused in the past to support pre-existing political views, and will continue to be so used, but before the Klein et al. pep rally continues further down the tracks, here's a reality check. The current outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease began in the U.K. on Feb. 21. It has since spread to more than 300 farms there, and now one case in France. This particular strain of the virus first emerged in Southeast Asia about 10 years ago before finally showing up, as journalist Matt Ridley so eloquently wrote in the Electronic Telegraph, on " a small pig unit run on a shoestring by two gum-booted brothers with impenetrable Wearside accents."
Hardly an industrial farm. Further, as Mr. Ridley says, a map of the world showing the countries free of foot-and-mouth is a map of the industrialized OECD: North America, Australia, most of western Europe. "The countries where foot-and-mouth is still endemic are precisely the countries that still practice small-scale peasant agriculture: countries such as India (where this strain originated), China, Brazil and Tanzania. Again, this does not prove a causal connection between peasant farming and foot-and-mouth, but it hardly suggests the opposite ... As livestock units became concentrated, feed formulation became more industrial and records better, it grew easier to exterminate the disease."
In other words, getting big has advantages. But never underestimate the power of an agenda to warp the truth. For example, on Feb. 14, in the middle of the Brazilian beef brouhaha, the Canadian Press quoted Michael Hansen, a biologist with the U.S. Consumers Union, as saying that Canadian oversight was lacking and that two U.S. studies suggest a significant percentage of presumed Alzheimer's patients actually have variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), the human form of mad cow.
Variant CJD in North America? The ailment has yet to be detected in North America. A couple of e-mails later confirmed that the speaker or the journalist had confused classical CJD for the new variant, only the latter of which is associated with mad cow disease. No one seemed to notice or care. Except for cattle producers and government vets who take this stuff seriously.
Last May and June, Ontario was inundated with similar shrieks about the role of so-called factory farming in the Walkerton E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. The actual culprit turned out to be a family-owned, professionally run cow-calf operation of less than 100 animals -- not a factory farm. But why let facts ruin a polemic. Last June, Ms. Klein asked in her weekly Globe missive "why did we need the deaths in Walkerton to make us see that abstract policies take their toll on real people's lives?" -- instead of asking, where else but government can a water utility employee make $70,000 per year to not do his job? And last week, while chastising U.K. veterinary officials for heavy-handedness and appeasement to economic forces, Ms. Klein stated that foot-and-mouth "can be cured quickly in animals with proper medicines and quarantines, then prevented with vaccination."
That must come as a surprise to the vets and researchers around the world who engage in such activities. If only they had asked Naomi.