After a troubled decade, it’s time Ottawa and the provinces undertook a serious review of the game farming industry.

More than 600 farmers in Alberta and more than 500 in Saskatchewan have put up tall wire fences and run domesticated elk and white-tailed deer in an effort to diversify their farms.

But the industry’s economics, dubious from the outset, have proven highly volatile. The value of breeding stock has plummeted from the early days. Elk farmers are still shut out of traditional elk-velvet aphrodisiac markets in the Far East because of lingering worries about disease. And so far, no big market for elk meat is materializing.

Raising elk in captivity has introduced new disease — chronic-wasting disease — to Alberta and Saskatchewan. Conservationists warned of this danger in the 1980s, and there are signs it may have been passed on to wild animals, with a potential major threat to wildlife.

Last week, there was another troubling development.

Four Saskatchewan farms, the main source of the CWD outbreak, are so contaminated that some agriculture uses of some of the land are prohibited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. That’s put a handful of farmers in a terrible bind, looking for more compensation or some way to start a new business on partly quarantined land.

It costs a lot of tax dollars to support this marginal industry. In the early 1990s, taxpayers spent $25 million in compensation fees alone to farmers for animals slaughtered to control a tuberculosis outbreak that destroyed about half the fledgling Alberta herd.

So far, the fight against CWD in elk has cost $33 million to compensate farmers, mainly in Saskatchewan. (CWD is in the same disease family as “mad cow disease,” though there’s no evidence so far that it can be transmitted to humans.)

The industry has been based on a lot of hope and “limited science,” as government officials call it. But that simply opens the door to potential environmental problems. Since the CWD organism is very difficult to eradicate, it’s not known what it would take to clean infected land on Saskatchewan farms. Do we really want to see land restrictions as a long-term solution?

The four Saskatchewan farmers are barred from raising cattle on parts of their land.

While there is yet no evidence that CWD spreads to cattle, the CFIA is absolutely right to use the utmost caution. Transfer of the disease to cattle would be a major disaster for the cattle industry.

CFIA also told the four farmers they could grow hay as long as they do not feed it to deer or elk. They can grow grain, but not sell it to the local elevator. They must keep their high fences up to prevent wild deer and elk from wandering onto the contaminated land.

It all seems very complicated, and a bit like farming with one hand tied behind your back. It hardly gives confidence in the ability to control this disease.

Here in Alberta, CWD has been found on only one elk farm (compared to 40 in Saskatchewan). But Alberta was the first place in Canada to see the disease turn up on a white-tailed deer farm. The entire herd has not been tested, so it is unclear how widespread the disease is.

George Luterbacher, veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Winnipeg, is optimistic the disease can be controlled. With only a handful of CWD outbreaks last year compared to last, he says, disease control measures are working, though he adds there is a two to three-year incubation period.

Alberta’s chief veterinarian, Gerald Ollis, says there is little risk of the disease being passed on to cattle, although he admits there are many unknowns when it comes to CWD.

Last fall, elk farmers pinned their hopes for revival on hunt farms to create a market for their animals. Due to disease concerns, Alberta farmers are banned from selling into U.S. and Saskatchewan hunt farms. Wisely, the Alberta government refused to approve game farms, which are out of step with Alberta attitudes to wildlife and hunting.

With little market for meat, the velvet market still elusive, and no hunt farms, it’s time to ask whether this is an industry with a viable economic future.

Global trends in agriculture put consumer and food safety at the heart of public policy. Canada’s future depends on its reputation for high-quality, disease-free product. Game farming so far appears to run against that.

Some jurisdictions refused to get into game farming. The Yukon rejected the industry after doing an economic analysis. Wyoming turned it down because of the threat to the wildlife, to hunting, and to game-viewing activities. In 2000, Montana banned game ranching.

Commercializing wildlife has many problems. Trying to devise environmental and farm-safety practices on the basis of limited science about disease is unsound. It’s unlikely this industry is worth the very real risks. At the very least, a public review is in order.

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