How “Mad Cow” disease affects farm families and communities across Canada

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Four years following the first Canadian born case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or “Mad Cow” disease, the social and financial impacts continue to resonate in farm families across Canada.  Very little has been systematically documented concerning the ways in which BSE has affected the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. Gender analysis has also been missing. As such, there is a social imperative to understand these effects so that programs and policies can be put in place and evaluated to promote the health and well being of Canadian farm, ranch and rural families. The differential impacts for men and women, girls and boys must be understood if programs and policies are to have the desired beneficial effects.

Mad Cow disease has been portrayed as a social disaster in slow motion.  Although the BSE crisis has garnered much attention from the media, little focus has been placed on the long-term consequences of the disaster on farmers, ranchers and their families. The BSE crisis has caused increased stress on farms stemming especially from financial uncertainty, a sense of loss of control and increased government regulation. Previous farm research has shown that women and men experience stress differently.

Farmers and ranchers are losing confidence in the industry and in some cases are advising their children not to work in agriculture. In addition, families are breaking up, suicide rates are rising, women are struggling more with food provisioning, and some farmers are leaving the business altogether. This begs the question: what will be the future of Canadian agriculture? How will rural women’s lives be transformed?

Currently, researchers from across Canada have come together to address this question by identifying the impacts of BSE on families and their communities from the perspective of social determinants of health.  A cohort study of the impact of prion disease on farm family community health (Rural Family Health) is currently underway, led by Wilfreda E. Thurston (University of Calgary) and Carol Amaratunga (University of Ottawa) and funded by the Alberta Prion Research Institute (APRI) and Prionet. 

The Rural Family Health study is national in scope, involving over 14 co-investigators across the country, including three Centres of Excellence for Women’s Health (British Columbia, Atlantic and Prairie) and nine universities across Canada. Gender analysis is a key focus of the research.

One of the many goals of the Rural Family Health project is to develop a national cohort of farmers and ranchers (men and women) who are willing to participate in a longitudinal study of the impact of prion diseases, such as BSE, on the determinants of health. Farm and ranch families will be recruited and surveyed in BC, AB, SK, MB, ON, NS and QC. The survey will include questions about health status, social support, health service use, farm management systems, food security and beliefs and practices related to managing threats to health.

To compare results over time, funding is being requested to conduct another survey three years later. In addition, interviews will be completed in several locations to enrich the understanding of rural community experiences around BSE, from the individual and group levels, all the way to the policy level. Other important aspects of this multiphase project include a study of food provisioning, and an Aboriginal farming community component.

The work to date exhibits the foundation for a dynamic, longitudinal program of social science research on population health and BSE that adds to the academic and applied understanding of how individuals and populations manage the risks and consequences associated with BSE. The stories of women and men will be brought together with other data to give an in-depth analysis of the experiences of risk management.

The focus on health has resonated with farmers, ranchers and researchers alike. The research program is dynamic and has responded to changes in the social and political environment and is positioned to continue in this way. The foundations have been laid for recruitment of a national cohort of at least 1,000 ranchers and farmers across Canada who are willing to participate in a longitudinal study on the impact of prion disease. A cohort provides a unique opportunity for studying cause-effect relationships. The data obtained from each survey will provide many opportunities for collaboration around topics such as rural women’s mental health promotion and poverty reduction policies, to name only a few.

In the long term, the project aims to add value to the research that others are conducting on prion disease risk management and identify policy and practice interventions for local, regional and national audiences. The project will ensure that women and men have equal opportunities to be heard and understood.

A second study, The Socio-economic Impact of BSE on Rural and Farm Families in Canada, (Community Impact Study), is led by Carol Amaratunga at the Women’s Health Research Unit and funded by PrioNet Canada.  Using multi-site and multi-method research, this study aims to identify the economic and psychosocial impact of BSE on rural and farm families and socioeconomic well-being, including community resiliency, in Canada.  The Community Impact Study is part of a larger PrioNet-funded project led by a team of researchers at the Institute of Population Health, University of Ottawa, to develop the first Integrated Risk Management Framework for BSE.

The overall findings of the Community Impact Study will contribute to the development of a gender-sensitive risk management model for BSE that will include the social determinants of health. Amaratunga’s team will collaborate with project partners at the McLaughlin Center for Population Health Risk Assessment to develop a framework that will address deficiencies in past practices in managing prion disease risks. This Integrated Risk Management Framework for BSE will consist of a broader range of inputs extending beyond traditional agricultural and veterinary scientists to include social scientists, economists, political scientists and risk policy analysts. 

Moreover, the analysis of a broader and longer range of impacts extending well beyond the agricultural sector will promote the inclusion of societal values and ethics reflecting public concerns about prion disease risks.  A feminist analysis of risk management will help ensure that women’s specific needs are included.  Finally, this work will improve risk communication with more complete, accurate and transparent information on the risks of BSE.  

These two projects, Rural Family Health and Community Impact Study, will contribute new knowledge by asking new questions about macro-level determinants such as gender and culture, distribution of resources, meso-level factors such as community capacity, and individual level psychological factors, particularly stress. Furthermore, the intersections with other population health issues will also be identified (e.g., other food production policies, the future of farming in Canada, globalization and farming) to add to our understanding of solutions for rural women’s health.

Together, these projects will build knowledge networks to foster both individual and institutional capacity through the training of a new generation of prion researchers in gender-analysis, social science and rural research. Relationships will be built with rural, farm and ranch communities to identify key issues, gaps and solutions to the BSE crisis.

Research results will be shared with stakeholder groups and policy makers. The results will influence and shape public policy through a dissemination strategy which will target a number of policy audiences: community, provincial and federal policy and decision planners. 

Ultimately, through collaborative community-based projects such as these, farmers and ranchers will be supported to survive the “perfect storm” and to regain hope in the future of Canadian agriculture.

For additional information about these projects, please visit: and