At this moment — the 211 journalists sitting in jails around the world have an unknown fate. Over half are languishing in Turkey and the balance in China and Iran. Last year, 52 were killed and of the 130 still missing, there is an expectation that they have been abducted — some of those by Syrians.
These are riveting statistics when we think we enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of the press. What we do not know is the extent of our trading partner’s human rights violations and the long-term impact ignoring these violations might have.
Today, there is more budget allotted to social stability maintenance in China than there is to defence. The government has chosen to continue to rule the lives of the people and impose harsh restrictions when it comes to freedom of expression, freedom of association and religion and of course freedom of the press. They outright reject international and domestic scrutiny of their human rights record. In Canada, there is a feeling that we just can’t do without trade to China and our lentil, wheat and corn industries heavily depend on trade with Turkey.
But trade is a two-way street and Canadians digest a lot of food product from China and other countries including the U.S. Although China attempted to crack down on illegal food additives, pork continues to glow in the dark and fish are fed birth control pills. There is no controlling agency, or equivalent to the CFIA leaving food safety and quality up to the state-run police. More than 448,000 food processors, many of which are tucked away on back streets and rural roads, make the task of enforcement huge.
When a crisis occurs the Chinese really punish. Two executives were executed when 300,000 babies were sickened and seven died because manufactured baby milk product contained melamine. But that is not the end of the story. The father of a sick child who spoke up about the after-effects, including the kidney failure of his child, was promptly jailed 2.5 years for inciting social disorder. When you are jailed in China the sentence also often carries a loss of political rights for life and the confiscation of property.
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In reading the Chinese news, in doing research on the Internet and in speaking out on my views of China, I have already violated several laws and this could be punishable by a life sentence. Just talking to a reporter about food poisoning, food safety or health issues related to food will land you very quickly in jail, where there is no chance of parole or early release.
If all truths were known, Chinese manufacturers have been charged with using an altering glaze on pork so it tastes and smells like beef, adding ink and paraffin to noodles to make them appear a higher-end product, recycling cooking oil from open sewers and making soy sauce from hair clippings. Tested food products from the shelf contained pesticides, paint, bleach and industrial salt.
But all truths are not known and although we tend to think we can ignore these facts about food safety, freedom of speech and freedom of the press, they are closer to home than we think. In Canada, federal information commissioner Suzanne Legault is formally investigating what opponents argue is a government silencing science by controlling federal scientists and pulling them back from media interviews that do not have ministerial consent. Scientists, says the claim, do not get a chance to tell Canadians what they need to know and the media is crying obstruction. As for our largest trading partner, the United States, the proposed act to amend the Agriculture and Markets Law, makes it clear that in addition to the tampering with a farm animal, including injection of an unauthorized substance or the release of or the unauthorized feeding of an animal, Homeland Security has justified that tampering includes video, audio or photography without the farm owners consent. This is in response to undercover videos that reveal abuse.
Our “ancient contract” with food animals as Dr. Temple Grandin calls it, is that we respect them and provide appropriate care. This is the business we are in and by shutting out investigators and reporters, the public may see us as having something to hide. I am concerned that there is more damage when consumers don’t know. Greg Peterson, popular farm parody singer has been quoted as saying, “If consumers aren’t thinking about where their food comes from it ends up hurting the farmer because we lack respect from the general public.”
The politics of food and the dependency on trade may have clouded our long-term vision. We can impose restrictions on those nations that suffocate the press and violate human rights — and it is every nation’s responsibility to ensure safety for the press. What we cannot do is regulate truth in North America or we will implode on our collective ignorance. Our consumers have the right to know what they eat, where it came from and how the people and animals were treated. I stand fearless in the face of truth knowing the world may be a better, safer place because of something that I said.
Brenda Schoepp is a Nuffield Scholar who travels extensively exploring agriculture and meeting the people, who feed, clothe and educate our world. A motivating speaker and mentor she works with young entrepreneurs across Canada and is the founder of Women in Search of Excellence. She can be contacted through her website www.brendaschoepp.com. All rights reserved. Brenda Schoepp 2014