THE PLAGUE THAT NEVER WAS; FOOT AND MOUTH SHOULD NOT BE A CRISIS. WE HAVE ALL BEEN MISLED BY THE MEN FROM THE MINISTRY
by Geoffrey Lean - The Independent (London) March 4, 2001
THIS WEEKEND - as funeral pyres light up the night sky and barriers go up all over Britain's
broad acres - farming and the countryside face their biggest crisis, and their greatest opportunity, since the Second World War. Yet - despite the draconian measures - foot and mouth is a mild disease, from which animals recover naturally and quickly. It has only been turned into a disaster by the heedless intensification of agriculture over the past 50 years.
By yesterday, 51 herds had caught the disease - after the largest rise in cases in a single day - and 45,000 cows, sheep and pigs had been slaughtered to try tostop it spreading. And Britain had a Keep Out countryside. Every footpath in every national park is closed, as are all but 20 of the National Trust's properties, and all two-and-a-half million acres of the Forestry Commission's land. Fixtures from the Wales v Ireland rugby match to Crufts have been cancelled.
The farming industry, already on its knees, is staring into the abyss and neighbouring nations wait - with fear and fury mixed - to see how they will be affected. The crisis has severely shaken Tony Blair, and, as senior ministers confirmed yesterday, forced him to abandon his plans to
announce the General Election for 5 April immediately after Wednesday's Budget. The disease's escalating effects, the draconian control measures and the unanimously sombre tone of commentators, all suggest that the country must be facing a devastating killer plague.
But we aren't. Foot and mouth disease only very rarely affects people, and even then only raises a slight temperature and a few blisters. It doesn't even kill animals. As the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) itself admits, the sheep, pigs and cows being slaughtered and burned would shake it off in two or three weeks if they were allowed to live. Vets say that it is no more serious for animals than a bad cold for humans. Instead, it is an economic disease.
When animals are sick they produce less milk, and put on less meat. MAFF asserts that cows also milk less well when they recover, though late last week could produce no scientific evidence to prove it. Yet MAFF steadfastly refuses to countenance any relaxation of its zero tolerancepolicy.
This contrasts sharply with the enormous tolerance it showed BSE, allowing hundreds of thousands of diseased animals into the food chain and permitting controls - when introduced - to be poorly enforced and widely flouted. Yet BSE really is a terrifying plague which has killed 80 people, slowly and horrifically, and will do the same to thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, more over coming decades. MAFF's reaction to the two diseases shows where its priorities lie. It cares little for human health. It is not even particularly bothered about sick animals. What gets it exercised, and spurs it to emergency action, is a threat to the profitability of agribusiness.
In a sane world, the economic losses caused by this mild disease would not matter much: farmers would accept and adjust to them, as to the fluctuations of their harvests.
But the crazy overintensification of agriculture, with margins pared to the bone to produce cheap food against foreign competition, means it simply cannot afford them.
Britain pioneered the intensification on this side of the Atlantic. No European country has pursued it so relentlessly, or has so ruthlessly driven small farmers to the wall to benefit richer ones: more than 330,000 farms - two -thirds of the total - have been forced out of business since 1945. Abigail Woods - a vet who is researching the history of foot and mouth at Manchester University,
financed by the Wellcome Trust - adds that it was Britain, too, that pioneered the zero tolerance policy to foot and mouth, originally to protect a few wealthy stockbreeders, and was the first country to ban imports from countries with the disease. Now, hoist with its own petard, MAFF has no alternative but to continue the slaughter to stop British meat being excluded from export markets that have followed our lead.
Intensification may not be to blame for the outbreak of the disease, but it has turned it into a crisis affecting the highest in the land. Mr Blair - who on Tuesday makes his second green speech in less than six months after more than three years of silence - told a private Downing Street meeting of environmentalists and businessmen on Thursday that the floods, the collapse of agriculture and the latest scientific predictions on the effects of global warming (reported in the Independent on
Sunday last month) showed we were now reaping the harvest of past neglect.
All this may be providing a catalyst for change. Tony Blair has called for a national debate on the future of agriculture. Ministers accept that policies of the past decades have failed and are cautiously moving towards a radical shift - from intensifying agriculture to preserving the environment as the basis of sound farming.
They want to switch the bulk of the massive subsidies given to agriculture from intensifying production to conserving and managing the countryside. And they say that the foot and mouth emergency is speeding up the process.
They face two obstacles. The first is the European Union, which, led by France and Germany, has resisted change. But Germany appointed a new Green agriculture minister in the crisis that followed the discovery of BSE in the country.
She has indicated that Germany will join the campaign for reform. If it does, ministers believe they could muster the votes to push it through. The second, much more formidable obstacle is MAFF, which is responsible for the mess in the first place and has lost none of its conservatism or
obscurantism. It must be allowed to obstruct no more. When the last glows of the burnt carcasses have died away, ministers must build one more pyre - for MAFF itself, and the whole misguided set of entrenched interests it represents.