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Editor’s Take: Food as a weapon

It’s hard to imagine how the heartbreaking loss of lives in a jetliner crash could translate into a bacon boycott, but welcome to the wild and wacky world of food politics.

The reaction when Michael McCain, the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, took to Twitter to say what a lot of Canadians were feeling after 57 of this country’s citizens were shot out of the sky by the Iranian military in a case of mistaken identity is just another reminder of how quickly food becomes a weapon.

The man at the helm of one of Canada’s largest hog producers and food processors used the company’s Twitter account to express his outrage at the disaster, taking aim at U.S. President Donald Trump for setting off a tragic chain of events.

“I am very angry, and time isn’t making me less angry. An MLF colleague of mine lost his wife and family this week to a needless, irresponsible series of events in Iran…

“U.S. government leaders unconstrained by checks/balances, concocted an ill-conceived plan to divert focus from political woes… A narcissist in Washington tears world accomplishments apart; destabilizes region…

“… Canadians needlessly lost their lives in the crossfire, including the family of one of my MLF colleagues (his wife + 11-year-old son)! We are mourning and I am livid,” he said in a series of tweets.

Watching Twitter is like being a bystander in a virtual barroom brawl. Someone says something that offends someone else and before long, the punches start flying. People on the periphery get a virtual shove, they get offended too, and then all hell breaks loose. Some dive in because they’re just plain mad and looking for a fight.

Reaction was swift from home and abroad. Many empathized with McCain, but just as many did not. Responses to responses spiralled into heated exchanges, many of which veered remarkably close to being just plain silly.

“You’re obviously an idiot,” said one.

“You are an uneducated idiot,” came the response.

Sprinkled throughout the polarized chain of commentary were promises to buy more Maple Leaf products and threats to boycott them.

“Thank you for making my decision to never buy another ML product again, easy,” said one.

Several referred back to the 22 lives lost when Maple Leaf experienced a listeriosis outbreak in 2008, others attacked his character, labelling him a “moral retard.”

Another common thread was admonishing him for jeopardizing his business by speaking publicly.

“I really have to wonder, if the shareholders, employees and customers of Maple Leaf Foods, are all OK with the CEO taking this account to make a personal rant against the U.S. and the president of the United States? Seems an irresponsible way to address your anger and grief,” noted one reply.

Food politics is a chippy business in the social media era.

While it’s impossible to know how many of those opinions translated into action at the grocery store, it was surprising that so many tweeters almost immediately looked to extract vengeance or confer reward by voting with their dollars.

In the world of food politics you can on one hand, have customers refusing to buy and on the other, suppliers refusing to sell.

Governments, for example, commonly use food as a weapon. History is rife with examples of populations being starved into submission or even oblivion.

We Canadians look down on such atrocities elsewhere, even though our own history is marred by policies aimed at ‘taming’ and disenfranchising our Indigenous people through hunger.

Trade sanctions frequently target foods when countries take issue with the actions of another. Slapping tariffs on widgets and screws doesn’t have the same impact as hitting orange juice, meat products or wines.

The McCain Twitter brawl was unfolding as Canadian soybean and canola farmers wait to find out how court proceedings against a Huawei executive detained by the Canadian government might affect Chinese demand for their crops.

China’s political leadership seems to have forgotten that when its crops failed in the late 1950s and millions were faced with starvation, Canada sold it wheat when other exporting countries refused to feed a Communist regime.

Two years ago, Saudi Arabia stopped buying our wheat and barley as punishment after the federal government criticized its track record on human rights.

Canadian farmers understandably find it upsetting to see their livelihoods threatened by disputes they had no hand in creating and are helpless to resolve.

But as decades of hard-fought gains in international diplomacy and disciplined trade continue to unravel, they’d be wise to brace themselves for more of the same.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]



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