Articles from George Monbiot & Simon Jenkins
- George Monbiot
Thursday March 29, 2001
Last week a friend working in Kenya explained Britain's foot and mouth
policy to a Maasai cattle herder. The nomad found our approach horrifying
and hilarious in equal measure. His first objection was that all cattle
belong to the Maasai, and no one had asked their permission. Then he wanted
to know why Britain found it so hard to suppress a disease which the Maasai
had learnt to control generations ago. When my friend explained that we
were hoping to start selling our meat abroad once more, he was mystified:
"Why on earth would you want to do that?" he asked. This is a good
question, which we in Britain have so far failed to ask, let alone to answer.
Yesterday, the Times suggested that our meat exports are worth "up to £1bn
a year". As usual, the paper of record seems to be making it up as it goes
along. The Ministry of Agriculture's figures for last year show that we
exported £310m worth of cattle, pigs and sheep to the European Union, and
next to nothing elsewhere. Interestingly, this figure represents a decline
of 39% from 1999. If this trend continues, our exports will dwindle to zero
in three years' time. But it won't continue. Foot and mouth, for most
foreign buyers, is the final straw, confirming their well-founded suspicion
that our farming is unsafe. There is no guarantee that exports will resume
at all when the UK is declared free from disease.
Most of our livestock sales, moreover, are subsidised, by both headage and
export payments. The truckers who drive them around are also state
assisted, as their fuel and road taxes now pay only some 80% of the costs
they impose on the Exchequer. Livestock sales, in other words, are likely
to cost the country more than they make.
So parts of the countryside have been declared off limits, the tourist
industry has been all but obliterated, rare breeds have been slaughtered
and hundreds of businesses have been closed to protect an industry which is
worth not £1bn a year, not £570m as ministers have claimed, not even the
£310m that Maff figures show, but, in all probability, less than nothing.
Surely then, there must be other reasons for the government's declaration
of war with Britain's sheep? One compelling argument is that Europe insists
we stamp out the disease. But the European rules - which arose, anyway,
from the British insistence on curtailing foot and mouth through mass
slaughter - are designed to protect trade between member states. Were we to
abandon our fantasy animal exports, then the requirement would become
Foot and mouth disease does have implications for animal welfare. In
extreme cases, livestock suffer gravely from the lesions on their mouths
and feet. But we can put down animals in this condition without having to
slaughter the entire herd, let alone the healthy stock on surrounding
farms. Indeed, one of the many idiocies of the mass slaughter programme is
that animals in distress are reached no faster than animals which aren't
suffering at all: it prolongs pain, rather than relieving it. The selective
culling of badly infected stock, moreover, is likely to lead to an
improvement in disease resistance, which many of our over-developed new
breeds are now woefully lacking. Any suffering caused by foot and mouth
would surely be offset by terminating the cruel and unnecessary live
transport of animals to other countries.
There is no doubt that foot and mouth will also lead to reduced yields of
milk and meat, but it's hard to understand why this should be considered a
problem. Thanks to overproduction, the EU has introduced a quota system
which ensures that every time we buy a pint of milk, we have to pay two
pence over the market price.
The benefits of endemic foot and mouth, by contrast, must surely be
obvious. It would encourage farmers to develop local markets for their
produce, which is the only strategy which makes both economic and
environmental sense. It would reduce the number of lorries on the roads. It
would persuade breeders to phase out strains with poor resistance to
disease and inherent welfare problems, and return to hardier types which
don't require such intensive management.
So the government's decision to start vaccinating livestock should be
opposed, on the grounds that it might eliminate foot and mouth from
Britain. The ministry should continue to spread the disease around as
rapidly as possible, by pursuing a slaughter programme it doesn't have the
capacity to implement, leaving piles of rotting animals strewn around the
countryside, then setting fire to them so that the virus is lifted into the
jetstream and widely dispersed. If the vaccination programme is successful,
then, as an urgent strategic priority, the government should reinfect the
Why do we let these farmers blackmail us?
SIMON JENKINS, The Times
A strange thing is happening. I am beginning to sympathise with ministers
over foot-and-mouth.The Labour Government is being held to ransom by
livestock farmers much as Tory Governments were held to ransom by
coalminers. Farming communities cry in aid of the same "national interest".
They evince the same emotive support from the media. Ministers have no
friends and no clue which way to turn. Yesterday I heard Tony Blair in
bizarre Churchillian mode, pledging himself to "strain every sinew" to
defeat foot-and-mouth (FMD). He was unconvincing. Terrorised by demands for
a "disease-free national herd", he seemed at the mercy of his vacillating
vets. These scientists, he should remember, live as bondsmen to the
livestock industry and its profitability. They have done well from his
abattoir policy. Now they have reduced him to a pastiche of a wartime
general, implying that no price is too high to protect livestock profits,
no price too horrendous to the taxpayer or rural economy. He will kill
everything that moves, if that is what vets want. This is not just bad
government. It is intellectually daft.
Mr Blair seems to forget that FMD is rare among industrial pollutants in
having no impact on public health.Despite the media hysteria, not a single
human being and not a single animal has died of this illness. Previously
infected meat and milk are perfectly safe. Lord Bragg joined the pack in
hailing FMD in this paper yesterday as "this fearful plague . . . this
demon reaching into the heartlands and hills thought deeply safe, a serial
killer, a predator at large". I wonder how he would describe the Black
Death or the Holocaust. FMD was endemic in the Lake District of his
lordship's fiction. The only serial killer today is government policy. That
is a disease all right, but one of the brain. Most of my profession seems
to be suffering. Last week the ever-gullible BBC filmed a farmer close to
tears over the possible loss of his beloved cattle to the slaughter policy.
It then showed him finding out that they were safe and driving them
straight round to the local abattoir. There followed astonishing scenes of
Jeremy Paxman and the leader of the National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill,
commiserating over what they seemed to think was a nuclear disaster.
Farmers may be able to fool Newsnight each evening, but can they really
fool the rest of the nation? The lobbyists protest that the slaughter
policy is a matter of animal welfare. This is rubbish. If they cared about
welfare, they would vaccinate their animals. Animals are not vaccinated, as
Nick Brown has admitted, because it would cost the farmers dear in export
potential. This debacle is not about human health, nor about animal
welfare. It is about money. As the veterinary historian, Abigail Wood,
pointed out in The Times this month, FMD used to be endemic throughout
Europe and is on most other continents. The disease rarely lasts more than
a fortnight, is seldom fatal and grants its victims a measure of immunity.
Farmers used to regard it as an irritant and lived with lower yields where
In the middle of the last century, a group of pedigree herd owners demanded
a slaughter policy to protect their investment. It was only then that a
reluctant Whitehall asked the industry overall whether it wanted to end the
policy of toleration. Officials actually took a vote, the pedigree owners
defeating ordinary farmers by a majority. Britain later forced the policy
on to the rest of Europe and ministers have had to enforce it during any
outbreak. This was expensive in 1967 and is even more so today. But the
dead animals are
the result of a policy, not a plague..Illness does not kill cows, people do.
Mr Brown describes this policy as a "matter of life and death" to the
farming industry. He has been conned. Even if it stood a chance of working,
his containment policy was undermined by farmers ferrying livestock round
the country at breakneck speed,at least some of them knowing that the
animals might be infected. There was no evidence that Mr Brown's
devastating February 26 plea to the nation, "Do not venture into the
countryside", impeded FMD any more than does straw doused in diluted
disinfectant. It was a solidarity gesture to farmers, with no thought of
consequence because Mr Brown is not Tourism Minister.
How can the millions lost in livestock exports be worth billions in lost
tourism? This is a Cabinet so un-joined up that it cannot connect a farm
and a bed and breakfast, or a flock of sheep and a coachload of children.
As the admirable Rory Bremner points out, the present collection of
ministers associate farms
with vineyards and olive groves.
Both BSE and FMD were the result of faulty farming practices,but only BSE
killed people. FMD appears to have entered the national herd through
illegal imports, abetted by livestock intensification under subsidy. The
Welsh hills now carry five times more sheep than 30 years ago, reducing the
uplands to a monoculture of shorn grass. The sheep lobby yesterday
threatened that the Lake District "would be
reduced to scrub", if not grazed by sheep in the manner approved by Wordsworth.
This is nonsense. It would revert to the gorse, heather and ecological
diversity which Wordsworth and successive visitors enjoyed, before Europe's
farmers won protection from New World imports and turned the uplands into
lawns. In which case let us struggle to look on the bright side. A fall in
sheep numbers would be a wholly good thing for the environment of what are
now grossly overstocked hills. Farmers are being compensated, far more than
any of the businesses that their lobbying for the slaughter policy is now
bankrupting. If the mass cull goes ahead, it will send restocking prices
soaring and bring considerable profit to others in the same industry. The
proposed controls on live animal transport should also see a return to
smaller abattoirs and more local meat marketing. In addition, farmers might
eventually be more sympathetic to non-agricultural rural industries. The
nation as a whole might take tourism more seriously.
Better still would be a realisation that policies can become obsolete.
Disease can never be eradicated from Europe's overbred, overstocked farms,
if only because protectionist farm policies have made illegal meat imports
hugely profitable. Holding livestock prices with slaughter binges may
simply prove too much for Britain's political economy to stomach. If the
public can live with meat imported from FMD countries such as Argentina,
farmers may have to tolerate the disease at home, insuring or vaccinating
against it at will. Britain may not be able to export its livestock for
some time, perhaps for ever, and revert to consuming what it produces at
home. That is not the end of the world. It was once unthinkable that Britain
would not be exporting ships or volume cars. Change comes to every industry.
Farmers claim that the rural economy depends on their unique output, a
farmed landscape. I have sympathy with this claim. Farmers remain the best
hope for long-term rural custodianship. But there are limits. A balance
must be found between livestock yields and the far more important return to
tourism and recreation. Visitors enjoy the landscape not because animals
are FMD-free but because it is undeveloped. They enjoy walking the hills
not because pedigree herds are exportable but because
open hills are precious lungs of nature. The future of the countryside may
depend to a degree on profitable livestock, but not beyond the bounds of
common sense. In the forthcoming debate on this subject, common sense about
food and farming will be crucial. Killing millions of animals in a futile
attempt to maintain profits is hardly a good preamble to that debate.
So let us repeat, foot-and-mouth is nothing to do with public health. No
vet has said so. No minister has said so.No farmer has said so. Nor is it
about animal welfare. If it were, farmers would have vaccinated long ago.
Foot-and-mouth may touch the heartstrings of the stockman and the
journalist. But the livery girl is just as hurt by a bankrupt stable, the
hotelier by a bankrupt lodge and the cook by a bankrupt restaurant. They
too have a national interest.
This slaughter is no act of God. It is an act of Government in thrall to
one industry. This is about money, money and more money.
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