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Potato Epidemic Crisis - Latest News:

As the potato ring rot (PRR) disease outbreak takes hold, the scale of seed potato movements across the UK has been revealed to heighten fears that a full-scale epidemic is now inevitable. Some 15,000 tonnes of potentially infected potatoes were distributed to growers across England and Wales last year by the Dutch firm at the centre of the scare.

The Prime Minister moved swiftly to take personal charge of the crisis, appearing on television flanked by high-ranking army officers in battle fatigues to announce that Professor David King, the government Chief Scientific Adviser, would provide the best possible scientific advice.  King called his old Royal Society pal Sir John Krebs, who by sheer coincidence just happened to be drinking in a pub with his old Royal Society pal, Professor Roy Anderson, when the news came through.

Anderson immediately gathered his faithful Imperial College team to work round the clock on yet another variation of their all-purpose computer model, based upon a human sexually transmitted disease.  In double-quick time, they had calculated all the unsupported assumptions that were needed to ensure the model yielded the predictions they wanted.

King and Anderson then gave a television broadcast using dramatic graphs to justify the novel strategies they had dreamed up.  In their opinion the epidemic was already out of control and the destruction of half the entire UK potato stock was predicted by the unvalidated model unless the following draconian measures, never before used anywhere in the world, were implemented:

1) a nationwide movement ban on all potatoes, but starting in four days time; the only exception being strictly controlled movements direct to cooking facilities under license

2) the destruction of all diseased potatoes on Infected Premises (IP) within 24 hours followed by thorough cleaning and disinfection of the premises

3) the pre-emptive destruction of all potatoes on contiguous premises (CP) to IPs within 48 hours followed by thorough cleaning and disinfection of the premises

4) a 3km exclusion zone to be established around each IP, with police posted on every gateway to ensure that movements of potato owners on and off all premises are prohibited, while all personnel and outside contractors engaged in destruction of tubers followed by cleaning and disinfection may come and go as they please

5) Trading Standards inspectors to visit all premises within the 3 km zone to check potato stocks for clinical signs of disease; any found to be destroyed

6) samples from suspected diseased potatoes to be urgently tested at Pirbright, the appointed OIE world reference laboratory for PRR disease, using the gold-standard aubergine test for a definitive result after four to six weeks

Questioned on the science behind the new policy, King freely admitted that he knew nothing about PRR disease nor any other vegetable diseases; however that did not matter as he had brought together a science group of four independent computer modelling teams to advise him, although none of these had any expertise in PRR either.  He had invited into the science group an experienced world authority on PRR from Pirbright, whose advice against the new strategies would be consistently outvoted by everyone else.

The steady release of detailed information into the public domain via the central DEFRA stakeholder meetings by diagnostics wizard Mary Marshall forced King to admit that the immuno-fluorescence test and the DNA test for PRR disease both gave clear results within a few hours; but he insisted that unfortunately the tests could not be used in this epidemic as they had not yet been validated.  Vaccination against PRR was an option under consideration, but there remained a number of obstacles to its use in the field, especially the risk of carrier potatoes that show no clinical signs but may spread disease to other unvaccinated tubers.

Jim Scudamore, the government Chief Veterinary Officer, has moved quickly to identify the source of the epidemic as infected tubers imported from Holland.  Confronted by the strange facts that the Dutch farm concerned had been checked and found disease-free, and that the consignment of potatoes sent to the UK in April had also been certified disease-free, Scudamore responded that there were two alternative explanations:

1) either an unidentified rambler on a non-existent footpath had discarded an illegally imported and hypothetically diseased potato sandwich onto the farm; or

2) diseased potatoes had been illegally imported by a minority ethnic group and found their way into compost that had not been properly sterilised, at premises his inspector had visited and licensed only a month earlier, before being fed to potatoes on the UK index farm.

Asked if he seriously thought anyone would accept either explanation in the absence of any supporting evidence, Scudamore smiled and pointed out that he had got away with it during the last two major epidemics.

As smelly piles of rotting potatoes accumulate in farmyards and field gateways across affected regions of the UK, controversy continues to rage over acceptable methods of disposal.  Burning on centralised mass pyres was initially seen as the best solution, but the resulting fumes given off have caused outrage in communities close to the burn sites, while the tubers themselves are transformed into jacket potatoes with blackened skins known as "smokies" that are very popular among ethnic minorities.  Proposals for mass burial sites have met stiff opposition in the locality due to unsubstantiated fears that regrowth could occur next spring. Emergency incineration facilities have been overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the epidemic, but do yield the most widely-acceptable waste product resembling high-bake oven chips.

Gardeners and allotment holders have locked their gates and barricaded entrances, arguing that disease must be identified by laboratory test before they will agree to give up their healthy crops.  But David King continues to insist that waiting four to six weeks for aubergine test results would allow onward spread of disease, while the new tests based on modern technology already widely used in human health diagnosis cannot be used for vegetables without validation.  When his reliance on a computer model that had itself not been validated was pointed out, he replied that this represented the consensus view of his science group, although only one of these experts knew what he was talking about and he took the opposite view.

Action groups have sprung up to oppose the governments policy of mass destruction, using the Internet to communicate and coordinate via the website www.well,well.com  run by Mary Critchley from her laptop in France.  Critics argue that the government lacks the necessary legal powers to implement their destructive policies and accuse Trading Standards inspectors of signing false certificates to authorise the destruction of potatoes without evidence of disease.  The government has responded by announcing the fast track passage through parliament of the Vegetable Health Bill, following a lengthy process of consultation with stakeholders that has been completely ignored.

Meanwhile the EU has granted permission for the limited use of emergency vaccination against PRR within affected areas of the UK.  However Ben Gill of the National Farmers Union (NFU) countered this by producing a list of 51 questions that required an answer before he could even consider recommending vaccination to his members, and demanded higher rates of compensation for destroyed stocks, plus a welfare disposal scheme for potatoes that could not be moved, plus another intervention scheme to purchase potatoes that were too small to sell in the marketplace even if they could be moved.  He said that the public would not buy vaccinated tubers and that vaccination would therefore create a two-tier market.  Activist Bryn Wayt revealed that supermarkets had been importing and selling huge quantities of vaccinated potatoes to the public for years, but these were not labelled as such.  The government said that they were not permitted to compensate farmers for loss of income following vaccination.  Activists later uncovered that provision for such compensation was expressly written into the EU Directive on PRR control and that this fact must have been known to both NFU and the government at the time these statements were made.

The world authorities on PRR at Pirbright laboratory have consistently pointed out that the epidemic had begun to decline before the draconian policies of Anderson and King had even been proposed, never mind begun to be implemented.  Anderson and King emphatically deny this but have not produced any scientific evidence to support their claim, only more computer models based on the same flawed assumptions.  Repeated calls for an independent investigation into this scandal to the EFRA Parliamentary Select Committee have been ignored, while the government itself has refused to hold a public inquiry into the biggest crisis to hit the UK in peacetime for over a hundred years. Bonnie Durrance, an independent film-maker from California, has flown over to the UK to record interviews with distraught potato farmers, scientists, politicians and other key players for a documentary on the crisis provisionally titled "When the chips are down".

Ben Bradshaw, an urban cyclist recently appointed as Minister for Agriculture, announced that a strict regime of movement controls over potatoes would be introduced as a top priority once the epidemic was over, based on a centralised system of potato passports and the individual identification of potatoes by subcutaneous microchips.  He said that everything was now under control and there was absolutely nothing that could go wrong . . . (click) . .  go wrong . . . (click) . .  go wrong . . . . . .