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Our future's more important than four little words ...

 


 
IT is tempting to say 'we told you so' but it usually doesn't help. As Margaret Beckett, UK food and rural affairs minister, said in her gracious response to the findings of the Anderson Report, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) last year was 'a nightmare'. It devastated rural Britain and left an indelible impact on millions of people who felt contaminated themselves by watching the mass slaughter and the funeral pyres night after night on the news. But in this case a bit of 'we told you so' is needed.

As president of the Soil Association, which leads the organic movement in this country, I played some part in the debate about what we regarded as a hideous strategy that was bound to fail. In Lessons To Be Learned, Iain Anderson, a former adviser to the Prime Minister, points out those failings with relentless clarity. But he seems to shy away from the real lesson to learn: that there is an alternative strategy which would have worked and must be used next time.

The really great blunder -- the ghastly self-inflicted 'nightmare' -- was to reject the case for vaccination except as 'a last resort', in itself a meaningless concept. As the Soil Association argued at the time, 'ring vaccination' to stop the spread of an outbreak would have been swifter and more effective than the so-called 'contiguous cull' of healthy animals. Long before the crisis had peaked, I argued that vaccination offered 'the only available prospect of an early reprieve from the mass carnage which has become a nightly horror show with a worldwide audience'.

Anderson does genuflect towards the case for vaccination but seems to shy away from the implications of his analysis. In her Commons statement, Beckett accepted his recommendation that 'the option' of emergency vaccination should 'form part of any future strategy for the control of FMD' but gave no indication what that meant. I hope it means the government now acknowledges that the case for vaccination is overwhelming but doesn't want to admit it.

I also hope it means that -- God forbid -- if there is a next time, the Soil Association's advice will not just be heard but heeded as well. And I hope it means that the 'last resort' mantra will be consigned to the funeral pyre.

At the peak of the crisis last year, Beckett's predecessor, Nick Brown, chuntered on in this vein ad nauseam. But in meetings with us he was far more enthusiastic about the potential of vaccination than he acknowledged in public. The only obstacle, he said, was the National Farmers Union in the person of their president, Ben Gill, who was unalterably opposed to vaccination.

In vain we told him he should not be bullied by Gill; that the NFU did not speak for most farmers; and, in this case, it spoke for a small but powerful minority who depended on the export of live animals -- an insignificant trade worth at most a few hundred million pounds by comparison with the threat to a wider rural economy worth many billions.

At the next meeting the minister declared himself personally persuaded by the case for vaccination. We knew, from the 'summit' at Number 10, that the Prime Minister was similarly inclined. But there was a problem. The NFU had acquired an ally in the colossi of the food processing industry. Led by NestlŽ they had opened a new front, claiming that products from vaccinated animals would be rejected by British consumers -- which would have been catastrophic. Then came a request: perhaps we could help the government by persuading the public of the incontestable fact that vaccination posed no risk to human health.

I suggested that this was surely a task for the government? But the minister evidently thought he and his department lacked the credibility needed for such campaign and we got nowhere. I have no doubt Tony Blair had a clear grasp of the options and that he strongly favoured vaccination. But in the end, I believe, he made a political decision to stick with the cull. I am sure this had nothing to do with the election but everything to do with the tactics of Gill and the food manufacturers. It was a battle Blair didn't seek but should have faced.

And that is the only virtue of raking over these embers. Gill and his allies are already busy re-writing history to suggest they weren't really opposed to vaccination; that, for the future, it is simply a matter of ensuring, as Beckett said in her Commons statement, that 'meat and food products from vaccinated animals' should be able 'to enter the food chain normally'.

In all future cases -- at least in relation to FMD -- the NFU should be treated for what it is ... a busted flush.

The government not only needs to admit past errors , but it must be open with us. It must put a vaccination strategy at the heart of its contingency planning and explain the reasons for this wise volte-face. If it does, then we will never again be tempted to say 'we told you so'. Far more important, we will never again face such a nightmare.

Jonathan Dimbleby is a broadcaster, organic farmer and the president of the Soil Association