Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has been found in 25 countries, costing billions of dollars in those affected economies, and has had profound social and environmental impacts at multiple scales of organization. As a global phenomenon, the impacts of BSE were mediated directly through the environment (animal and human health) but in Canada the indirect socioeconomic impacts of BSE were far more damaging, especially for farm households. Yet, very little research has been conducted on adaptation to the indirect impacts of global environmental change, such as those mediated through the market and governance. Our goal was to examine how farm households adapted to the Canadian BSE crisis in order to better understand rural adaptations to global zoonotic diseases and to agriculture-related global environmental change as a whole. We conducted our mixed methods research in 2004–2006. Data sources included 826 survey responses, 27 individual interviews and 12 group interviews with farmers and ranchers in western Canada. Factor analysis separated out responses into three general adaptation strategies: ‘innovating’ to pursue new opportunities; ‘enduring’ or adaptations that seek stability; and ‘exiting’ from beef production or agriculture altogether. Farm household and community level innovation was a crucial adaptive strategy in the absence of governmental and expert-based support. Enduring adaptations were important to farm household survival in the short term, yet “chronic enduring” can compromise long-term adaptive capacity. Farm exiting was highly problematic during the BSE crisis as these responses were largely unexpected and often left households more vulnerable. Government support at the farm level promoted stability, with little support provided for change-orientated adaptations. Effective farm adaptation will require support for all three types of adaptive strategies and ones that are both expert-based and grassroots in nature to enable farm households in their pursuit of pluriactive and multifunctional livelihood strategies.
- Bovine spongiform encephalopathy
- Farm household
- Global food system
- Grassroots innovation
- Zoonotic disease