In general, I always feel as if I am doing something vaguely wrong when I cross a border. Being interrogated by a uniformed authority figure who can arbitrarily restrict my freedom of movement is daunting enough as it is. But this time, returning to the United States after break, was even more nerve-wracking than usual. A glaring sign placed at the entry to U.S. Customs in Toronto airport commanded me to "keep foot and mouth disease out of America." I was instructed to inform officials if I had visited a farm or if I were carrying animal products.
Odd that I should be ordered to do so, considering I was arriving from urban Canada and not rural Europe. But I felt suspiciously like a guilty criminal, as I frantically calculated all the ways I could possibly contaminate livestock and thereby threaten American security. I wouldn't want the mass destruction of the American farm to weigh on my conscience, especially in upstate New York with the dairy industry's precarious situation. Not to mention having the blood of poor livestock on my hands, livestock that would have to be slaughtered, their charred carcasses exposed cruelly to the elements. A picture I saw of sheep in Cumbria, their burned bodies made white again by snow, has been the image of the outbreak that has stuck with me.
Aside from my personal response to the U.S. Customs' sign, I was most struck by the concept of keeping the disease "out of America." Defining the foot and mouth outbreak in terms of national boundaries seems distasteful to me. It is disrespectful to the deaths that have been the result of the outbreak, especially since the sheep and the cows do not subscribe to national boundaries themselves. I don't think they actually care in which political jurisdiction they die. I'm not asking that we deliberately infect American herds with foot and mouth in solidarity with Europe, but becoming insular at such critical global moments could accurately be called xenophobia. The attitude seems to be "keep those bloody European diseases in Europe, and let them suffer, thank you very much."
How about a more considerate, "stop the spread of foot and mouth disease" rather than invoking a paranoid nationalism that doesn't really help anyone struggling to cope with the outbreak? It is intriguing that the U.S. is invoking the sanctity of borders just ahead of next month's Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations in Quebec City. Opening up borders for free trade seems like a pretty darn good idea to our leaders. Cheaper food products from Europe have kept American consumers happy for a long while. If borders are open, for the porous exchange of goods, services and labor, we're going to have to deal with the fact that a bug or two will hitch a free ride. It is very convenient to say that borders do not count at some times (cheap goods, foreign investment), and do count at others. In this age of globalized travel and business, where people eat food produced at the other end of the planet, diseases are going to cross borders whether you like it or not. Already cases of foot and mouth have been reported in Argentina, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Instead of dealing with an outbreak on a global scale, why is it suddenly important that the U.S. alone be protected from the disease?
But here is where the petty politics of our own lives come in. Europe called the measures imposed in many countries in the world an overreaction to the outbreak. The American response was that foot and mouth had not touched this country in seven decades, and it sure is not going to now. Such patriotic fervor! So travelers from Europe slosh through disinfectant at American ports of entry, and shelves are cleared of certain European products.
The social unrest that affects human society as a result of the disease outbreak amongst other animals pose too many troubling questions about our food, our farms, our folly in thinking we can domesticate animals as if we were running an industry, keeping them in cramped and cruel conditions for our own benefit. The North American farm is already hugely subsidized by governments to keep them functioning, as food usually arrives at cheaper prices from abroad. An outbreak would mean a deepening rural crisis, which living in Ithaca, we don't need to travel far to see. By also keeping European food products out of the country for a while, we return to American-grown foods. The support of the American farm with public money is finally a good thing.
So really, a foot and mouth outbreak in Europe is actually an excellent turn of events. For America at any rate, and as long as we don't get any fancy ideas about free trade in disease. So why should America be concerned about the outbreak at a global level? For now, it is helpful that sheep and cows are keeling over dead in Britain, because that means we can kill sheep and cows in America to feed our insatiable demand for meat, and pay an American farmer for them. So don't stop the spread of foot and mouth, just keep it out of America.
Therefore, the sign.
The foot and mouth disease outbreak asks us questions about how we treat other animals, compels us to intervene on some level, but leaves disturbing questions about the fundamental nature of our societies. Rather than open that can and have worms crawling all over America, this country has decided to disinfect its borders and clear its shelves of European food, not only to fend off an epidemic but also to ward off a closer scrutiny on what we eat, how we eat it, and the ever-problematic why?
Archived article by Baj Mukhopadhyay