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Risk, innovation and BSE : cattle farmer perspectives on an agricultural and health emergency



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This ethnographic research examines how farmers survive agricultural crises by exploring reactions of Saskatchewan beef and dairy farmers to the Canadian BSE crisis. As this study unfolded it became clear that the BSE crisis is only one of many recent crises that have been changing the face of Saskatchewan rural communities and family farms. Producers see a crisis in their inability to achieve their own measures of success in both the life and business of farming. This includes a greater need for off-farm work, a decline in rural community life and values, and a shift away from farming as a desirable livelihood. The BSE crisis has highlighted the risky nature of the contemporary agriculture industry, both for farmers' livelihoods and for food safety. Farmers' initial strategies to address the BSE crisis were precautionary and conservative in nature: minimal enterprise adaptation while waiting out markets. As the crisis continued, producers worked to bring their experience and understanding to bear on changing the structure of the agricultural system. Attempts at change were not often successful. This was attributed to a lack of initiative by government and powerful players, such as the multi-national packing industry that profited from the crisis situation and used the crisis to consolidate power within the value chain. Producers felt that they were paying too much for risks that were beyond their control. The government support they needed was not in line with their structural concerns; risky pre-BSE structures have not been appreciably changed. Uncertainty and risk remain high for the average farmer. There appears to be a growing distrust in powerful institutions that farmers depend on, and a consequent disengagement from government surveillance and regulatory policies. This foreshadows possible serious repercussions in food security and food safety, issues that are still unsettled regarding BSE in Canada. This research indicates a need for greater transparency and public knowledge pathways to reduce uncertainty and allow individuals to better understand and manage emerging risk complexes. Increased democratic space within food and agricultural systems for participation by producer and rural publics would help to balance out government rationalities that may not fully account for culturally mediated understandings of risk and action at the farm level.



dairy producers, cattle producers, agriculture, Saskatchewan, Resilience, Mad Cow, risk, crisis, BSE, farm crisis, BSE crisis



Master of Arts (M.A.)






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