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THE FOOT and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak that started on 2 February has caused a major political crisis.
The government's strategy to contain the epidemic is proving to be an economic and environmental disaster. Yet, FMD is not a modern plague. So why has the mass culling of animals been pursued instead of other strategies, including mass vaccination? TERESA MACKAY explains how the interests of capitalist agribusiness drives government policy.
Crisis On Tony's Big Business Farm
OVER ONE million animals have been identified in the UK for slaughter when only 5% have foot and mouth disease (FMD). This is a disease that is less serious than salmonella for animals and harmless to humans. So why slaughter, why not vaccinate?
The reasons are purely economic. For trade purposes a country or region is only considered disease-free if it has no cases and does not vaccinate.
The US, Japan and Canada will not accept exported meat and milk if vaccination has been used as a method of stopping FMD, though they have no problem with animals vaccinated against a range of endemic diseases.
Most British meat exports go to the European Union (EU). Current EU policy is against FMD vaccination. This policy prevents imports from Russia, much of Africa and South America, thus protecting markets for EU member states.
According to New Scientist magazine, (31/3/01): "There is a big, unspoken benefit of not vaccinating. You can ban imports from many competing countries."
Costing the earth
THE COST of the New Labour government's agribusiness-driven FMD policy will run into billions. This is at a time when public services are chronically underfunded. And all to protect the livestock industry's £570 million annual export trade.
Yet, these export earnings are almost cancelled out by food imports. Government statistics show that last year the UK imported 129,000 tonnes of sheep, lambs and mutton while simultaneously exporting 125,000 tonnes. Similarly, we imported 272,00 tonnes of pigs and pigmeat and exported 213,000 tonnes.
A strategy other than mass culling is being demanded by many within the industry, not least the Soil Association and the Federation of Veterinarians in Europe (FVE), representing over 100,000 veterinarians.
Patrick Holden, Director of the Soil Association and spokesperson for the pressure group, Farmers for Voluntary Vaccination, said:
"Maff [Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food] faces increasing public opposition to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of healthy animals but farmers who do not agree with the NFU's [National Farmers' Union] support of the mass cull have no outlet to make their opposition heard. There is a huge amount of misinformation circulating about the effectiveness of the FMD vaccine and worse still, most farmers still believe the NFU's line that vaccinated animals would be compulsorily culled afterwards. This is simply not true.
"There is no reason why meat or dairy products from the vaccinated animals should not pass into the food chain and the government should reassure both retailers and consumers that there is no risk to human health."
It would also appear that a compound, Borax, provides a natural organic protection against FMD. Anecdotal evidence during the last major outbreak in 1967 indicates that farms that used Borax escaped even when their neighbours were infected.
However, no official clinical test was ever conducted on the efficacy of homeopathic Borax. Maff is thus able to claim that because this remedy has not been officially approved it cannot be recommended.
Having positively discouraged the use of Borax, Maff now confirms that it is legal to give homeopathic preventives to uninfected livestock.
Emergency government measures to control FMD could expose people to the risk of infection from the human form of BSE ('mad cow' disease). Under new guidelines Maff has told those disposing of the carcasses to use landfill sites. These carcasses may be infected with BSE.
Before the crisis, cattle over 30 months were being sent to prescribed outlets for high temperature incineration to destroy the prion agent which causes BSE. Now there will be no distinction between the cattle.
There are increasing concerns of public health with the burying and burning of hundreds of thousands of carcasses. The pyres are often fuelled by cheap coal and railway sleepers coated in creosote. When it burns it produces eight carcinogenic compounds including dioxins.
Burying dead animals has already led to instances of ground water becoming contaminated.
Blair don't care
TONY BLAIR continues to support the agri-moguls. Recently he said: "The government plans a major reduction in the number of farms and farmers as part of the recovery package for British agriculture in the wake of the devastating foot and mouth outbreak."
By 2005 farms are expected to fall by at least 25,000 with 50,000 people forced to leave the industry. Just before the FMD crisis Maff was about to publish three 'major reports' arguing that big farms were more productive and better able to compete with their counterparts in the Argentine Pampas and American Mid-West.
In the meantime, small- and medium-sized farms that have diversified over the years in order to survive and become more sustainable are in the process of losing everything.
Favouring the rich
HOW DO we prevent food catastrophes such as FMD happening again?
Undoubtedly, the intensive rearing of livestock, the globalisation of the food industry and the closure of countless abattoirs - leading to animals being transported unacceptably long distances - are all contributors to the spread of this disease. A lesson from this must be that, generally, a more locally based food production and distribution system is sensible for the sake of the environment, animal welfare and disease prevention.
During the Second World War the government had to introduce methods in order to feed the country. Food was mainly organic because pesticides were either unavailable or too expensive. As a result the diet of all improved tremendously, in spite of shortages.
Today, agriculture within the EU is dictated by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This favours producers over consumers and has led to fraud and corruption.
It is also inefficient, leading to misuse of economic resources and equity with price control supports as a form of regressive tax that consumers, including the low paid, pay for the benefit of better off producers.
Tobacco subsidies are greater than the value of the crop yet fresh fruit and vegetables receive just 7% of the value of the crop in subsidies. There is no encouragement within the EU to eat more fruit and vegetables. Instead, EU money goes to meat and dairy production and the crops grown to support them.
This results in highly saturated fatty foods and intensive meat production with little concern to animal welfare or the health of the consumers, let alone the health risks of BSE, antibiotic resistance and salmonella.
Increased growing and consumption of fruit and vegetables would prevent many illnesses and deaths and would encourage more biodiversity, decrease pollution, improve the environment and save money.
The battle for food control is a strategic issue in the EU/USA trade disputes - a battle between the multinational food giants and small/medium sized producers. CAP benefits large producers engaged in intensive arable and livestock farming.
As we know by the present crisis, we are paying in health, environmental and financial terms for these policies. Cereal prices may drop but we continue to pay the same price for bread.
The present system does not produce sustainable agriculture. In general less exploitative methods, more local production and processing and organic farming are needed for the long-term benefit of the farming industry, general health and the environment.
Consumer demand for organic food has risen 55% in the last year though currently 75% of those products sold in the UK has to be met by imports. In Sweden 11.2% of farmland is organic and 10% in Austria but in Britain only 2.3% is organic.
Socialists demand wholesome, sustainable forms of food production and distribution. This can only be achieved by ending the contradiction between the drive for profits under capitalism and the health and safety of people, rather than reforming CAP.
The pursuit of profit has to be jettisoned and replaced with a democratic, socialist agriculture policy.
A socialist programme for agriculture
Agribusiness, including the pharmaceutical companies, must be taken into public ownership under democratic workers' control and management.
Nationalisation of agricultural land owned by large capitalist concerns together with the big country estates. Land could be leased out on a secure basis to those prepared to work it including groups of farm workers, existing tenants and small farmers.
The food processing industry and retail industry should also be nationalised 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.
A plan of sustainable food production drawn up between farmworkers' representatives, small farmers who actually work the land, and consumers.
The 'exploiters and the profiteers'
THROUGH THE Common Agricultural Policy (which forces consumers to pay more for their food than world prices) and European Union budget support, farming in Britain receives around £10 billion annually in subsidies. Or put another way, £10 billion of our taxes goes to subsidise the wealthiest farmers in Britain.
But farming today only accounts for 0.9% of GDP (national output), employing just 1.5% of the workforce. By comparison tourism, which received £35 million in government support, attracted foreign visitors to Britain in 1999 who spent £12.5 billion.
Land ownership and farming is highly concentrated. 1% of the population owns more than half the land in Britain; just 2% own three-quarters of it. Half of Scotland is now owned by 600 individuals. Fewer than 10% of farms account for 50% of farm output.
Government and EU subsidies and other finances have poured into agriculture replacing people and buying more machinery and chemicals. Since World War Two employment in farming has declined from one million workers to less than 250,000.
While workers can sympathise with small farmers whose subservience to the economic might of the big supermarkets has driven down farm incomes to miserable levels, big agribusiness has enjoyed a golden period of profits.
"The state has seldom if ever been as benevolent to farmers and landowners as it is today. Farmland is subject to no taxes or rates. It is exempt from Inheritance Tax and qualifies for all reliefs under the rules of capital gains tax (CGT). On top of this, farm businesses are now eligible for reinvestment relief.
"This means capital accrued in some other venture has only to be invested in some farming enterprise to escape CGT. This makes farming and farmland an attractive bolthole for investors." (The Killing of the Countryside, Graham Harvey, p158.)
In the 1990s insurance and investment companies bought up huge tracts of land.
According to Harvey, the countryside is run by "the grubbers and sprayers, the exploiters and the profiteers. We have allowed them to assault our landscapes, wage war on our wildlife and abuse our farm livestock. They have poisoned our soils and dumped millions of tons of soil into our rivers.
"They have demolished nine-tenths of our wildlife assets. Now finally, they have corrupted the purity of our food." (p165.)
A cosy club for the rich farmers
MAFF'S (MINISTRY of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) relationship with agribusiness is so close that it has been referred to as "a cosy club for rich farmers", and more contemptuously called "the political wing of the NFU" (National Farmers' Union).
Maff has consistently let agricultural workers, small farmers and consumers down in the interest of agribusiness and the chemical industry.
They refused to accept that 245-T pesticide, organo-phosphate sheep dips or BSE were a problem although the Rural and Agricultural Workers of the Transport and General Workers' Union and others campaigned vigorously over the issues.
Even today the organised workers are not part of the Government Rural Task Force looking into the FMD crisis. Needless to say the NFU and the Tory-dominated Countryside Alliance are!
Maff officials knew last year that a highly virulent form of FMD, the 'Pan-Asia' strain, was spreading rapidly in East Asia. They warned nobody and did nothing!
Maybe it was bad luck that it should arrive in the UK but years of haphazard and piecemeal checks on legal and illegal imports of meat to the UK suggest it could have happened long ago.
Apart from their solution of mass culling, which has proved disastrous, they waited three days before imposing a movement ban of all farm animals.
Maff have been guilty of much disinformation on FMD. If vaccination had been adopted at the beginning of the outbreak, the government would have been carrying out official EU scientific policy!
Many are now arguing that Maff's days are numbered. According to Ian Gilmore, media co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth: "Maff should be shot in the head, dumped in a trench, fried to a cinder, sprinkled with quicklime and buried with a stake through its heart, that's what should be done with Maff!"
The agribusiness men that brought us BSE through their industrial cultivation of meat are the ones who have long dominated the national council of the NFU. They only represent one-third of farmers, most of whom disagree with their leadership! Together with Maff they have been intent on encouraging production at any cost.
Between them they were responsible for insisting on no vaccination as well as 'closing' the countryside. Ironically, I attended the National Countryside Access Conference - New rights, new responsibilities - on 27 February where we discussed the legislation on more access to the countryside!