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Why Is Cheese So Expensive in Canada?

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It's a struggle most Canadian dairy lovers are familiar with: Cheese up there is so expensive that a pound of cheddar can end up costing more than a pound of steak. Our neighbors to the north aren’t exaggerating when they complain about steep cheese prices—costs are sometimes three times higher than comparable products sold in the States, and it’s not because the Canadian air makes cows pump out liquid gold. It’s all thanks to a little something called supply management.

Supply management is a blanket term used to describe the policies regulating Canada’s dairy (and egg and poultry) markets. The dairy industry works differently in Canada than it does in other cheese-loving parts of the world. Both the European Union and the United States subsidize their dairy farmers—the Canadian government does not. Instead, they use other ways to get farmers the financial support they need.

Minimum price-setting for domestic dairy products keeps cheese prices above a certain mark, while strict quotas and high taxes on imports keep foreign competition under control. International cheeses account for a tiny fraction of the market, so cheese made in France, Italy, and other places abroad is difficult to find outside specialty shops. The result is more profits for Canadian producers taken straight from the consumers’ pockets come check-out time.

When supply management was introduced to Canada in the 1960s and '70s, it served a clear purpose. The policies were put in place to protect farmers from unpredictable market fluctuations and keep their livelihoods secure. Since then many of the small family farms that were originally protected under the laws have been replaced with factory farms, and the relevance of supply management is now a topic of hot debate.

The laws aren't terribly popular among citizens (even police officers have been known to help smuggle cheese across the border), and it's not just because of the high grocery bills. Opponents argue that the regulations are bad for innovation, free trade negotiations, and restaurateurs. Canadian farmers still insist the benefits outweigh the costs. On the Dairy Farmers of Canada’s web page, they write:

"While farmers around the world face unexpected and inexplicable wild market fluctuations, Canadian farmers sell their milk at constant and stable prices. As a result, Canadian dairy farming is one of the few agricultural sectors that are self-sufficient – providing income security for farmers and requiring no government subsidy. This means Canadian farmers can invest in their farms, communities and Canada."

Because farmers hold significant power in Canadian politics, supply management boasts supporters from every major party. But not all hope is lost for Canadian connoisseurs of affordable cheese. Progress on their front was made last year when a trade deal was signed slightly increasing the quota on foreign dairy imports. Consumers may benefit from the resulting price cuts, while Canadian farmers and processors will receive $4.3 billion from the government over 15 years to make up for the revenue loss. So next time you enjoy a plate of poutine, feel free to be a little less conservative with the cheese curds.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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