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Foot and Mouth Disease: Government policy driven by agribusiness profits
The Government forms a 'war cabinet'; passenger checks at Channel ports; sporting events cancelled; public access to the countryside restricted...has the country gone to war?
No. The current panic-stricken state of affairs over an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) is being generated by media sensationalism and a jittery government beholden to on the election campaign.
But FMD is largely non-fatal to livestock and with a few rare exceptions cannot be passed to humans.
Why then does a relatively mild disease like FMD immediately stop the trade in livestock and the slaughter of herds? After all, prior to this outbreak beef was considered safe by the government despite the continuing BSE infection of herds - a disease that threatens human health.
The reason for the government's virtual state of emergency over a relatively mild animal disease is a concern largely for the profits of the farming industry. rather than public health or animal welfare.
Animals that suffer from FMD are less productive (lower milk and meat yields), so the economic losses if the disease ran its course would be greater than the costs of eliminating it through widespread slaughter - especially as the public pays the compensation bill.
The effects on the industry's profits is the main concern of the government.
Successive governments' zero tolerance policy to FMD was established over 100 years ago to protect the pedigree herds of a few wealthy stockbreeders. Having foisted this policy abroad British agribusiness is now hoist upon its own petard.
According to the veterinary researcher Abigail Woods: "Even a single case of FMD leads many disease-free nations to place an immediate ban upon our valuable export trade. Disease freedom is therefore a precondition of international trade and this could not be obtained through disease treatment or vaccination."
"The agriculture ministry therefore regards FMD primarily as an economic problem, not an animal welfare or public health issue."
This is why successive governments have never developed alternative disease treatment strategies or the use of vaccinations which are considered too costly.
Another food safety crisis
IN THE wake of safety concerns such as the BSE / vCJD scandal, food poisoning scares, concerns over genetically modified organisms and now FMD, it's of little wonder that many people have lost confidence in the food industry..
This increase in food safety fears has accompanied the development of capitalist intensive farming practices. The main motivation behind this revolution in agricultural practices in the last 60 years has been the drive to maximise profits. Instead of striving to produce safe, sustainable and wholesome food, capitalist agribusiness has slashed the agricultural workforce and increased the use of fertilisers and dangerous pesticides and herbicides. Nitrates running off from farmland are increasingly polluting water supplies.
Intensive animal rearing in buildings lids led to the increasing use of antibiotics and other drugs to counter disease. Drugs are also used in greater quantities to bring the livestock to market quicker. Some scientists are alarmed at the implications for human health, such as the use of BST growth hormone in cows to-increase milk yields.
Unsafe but highly profitable practices in the meat industry - i.e. recycling animals in animal feed - led to the spread of the BSE disease. This disease has resulted in hundreds of thousands of cattle being slaughtered in Britain and now in other European countries.
BSE has been able to jump the 'species barrier' to humans and has led to the deaths of over 80 adults from the human form of BSE - VCJD. Infected meat and bone meal, despite the known health risks by the then Tory government and top civil servants, continued to be used in Britain until 1995 and exported outside the EU until March 1996.
Instead of enlarging meat and farm inspection the government is now planning to sell off the Meat Hygiene Service. A privatised inspection service would be 'self-regulating'.
It's the workers who pay the price
The foot and mouth outbreak has left farms up and down the country in a state of chaos. Unions are meeting Agriculture Minister Nick Brown to discuss this and job losses. So far, over 1,500 food workers have been laid-off.
FMD was an accident waiting to happen. Globalisation and industrialisation of farming has led to poorer quality produce and jobs losses throughout the countryside. Fortunately, this crisis has happened in the spring rather than winter, which means that once the warmer weather comes the virus will be killed off.
Almost two thirds of abattoirs have been closed in the last decade supposedly because of increased costs and the BSE crisis. This has helped the disease to spread as animals are transported the length and breadth of the country. We must demand abattoirs in each town so as to cut down on transportation and contamination.
The main culprits are the supermarkets who demand more and more from the farmers whilst cutting their profit margins in the interest of their own. This is passed on to agricultural workers who remain amongst the lowest paid in the country.
Agricultural workers in the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) have consistently argued for more organic as well as sustainable agriculture. This would mean more jobs, less chance of diseases spreading and less contaminated food.
Teresa MacKay, RAAW - TGWU
A socialist programme for the food industry
THE FARMING industry is dominated by finance capital. Each year £30 billion is handed out in subsidies by the European Union's Common Agriculture Policy (CAP). 80% of this money goes to the richest 20% of European farmers.
A consequence of this huge tax subsidy to rich farming interests is that it makes the practice of widespread use of pesticides and herbicides highly profitable.
Multinational biotechnology and agrichemical companies, together with the big five supermarkets in Britain, enjoy market domination and have enormous economic power.
This enables them to set the government's agenda on farming from GM foods through to food safety regulation. Intensive farming has revolutionised food production but at a high price. People cannot have confidence in an industry whose safety record comes second to big business profits.
To restore confidence, the pursuit of profit has to be jettisoned and replaced with a democratic, socialist agriculture policy
NEW AGRICULTURAL techniques, land management and food processing, i.e. each stage of food production from farm to fork, must be based on what is environmentally sustainable, safe and wholesome.
A plan of sustainable food production, drawn up between representatives of the farm workers' unions, consumers and small farmers who actually work the land.
Agribusiness, including the pharmaceutical companies, must be taken into public ownership under democratic workers' control and management.
Land should be leased out on a secure basis to those prepared to work it including groups of farm workers, existing tenants and small farmers.
The entire food industry should also be brought under democratic workers' control and management to ensure standards and make sure it operates within an overall plan to supply good quality cheap food to everyone.
WHAT A brass neck! Tory agriculture spokesman, Tim Yeo (who, as a minister in John Major's government dismissed public fears over BSE as an "hysterical overreaction"), is now jumping up to demand government compensation for farmers over the FMD.
No criminal charges have been brought against those responsible for the BSE cover-up but the relatives of BSE/vCJD victims are only now due to receive compensation years after beef farmers received compensation. The total cost to the public purse of cleaning up BSE, so far, is around £5 billion.
And while agriculture minister Nick Brown, with an eye to the forthcoming general election, assures the farming industry that compensation is available, workers sacked by Corus or General Motors, etc, will be asking, "where's our compensation?"
Workers will be sympathetic to compensation for those small farmers held in an economic arm lock by the supermarkets but not for the super-subsidised big farming interests.
In The Socialist 9 March 2001: