The politics of FMD – quoting Peter Melchett

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The politics of foot and mouth disease.

Text by Peter Melchett, Policy Director of the Soil Association – 6th August 2007

It seems as if the latest foot and mouth outbreak did not originate from some dodgy import of bush meat or contaminated pigswill, but from a high-tech laboratory that may have been manufacturing vaccines to control the disease.

This looks like an own goal for those of us strongly in favour of using vaccination rather than slaughter as a way of controlling foot and mouth disease. Vaccination is widely used in Europe, but many people must be wondering why we are taking the risk of making vaccines when the UK has managed to remain basically free of the disease through its slaughter policy for many decades. Is the vaccine worth the risk?

Stamping out the disease by killing animals is certainly in the interests of the small number of large farmers and big food businesses that export meat from the UK, and rely on our status as a foot and mouth free country. This is what our response to foot and mouth comes down to – power and money. I farm in Norfolk, and have organic beef cattle, sheep and pigs. Like every farmer in the country, I heard the news of the latest outbreak with a sense of disbelief and deep foreboding. How close is it to me? Had I got any animals just about to move off the farm? Would we have to cancel our next lot of visitors? From the last foot and mouth outbreak most people remember the burning pyres of animals. Norfolk and the surrounding counties were mercifully free of the disease, and my abiding memory will be of a terrible emptiness, of our farm stripped of visitors and walkers.

It may seem trivial to worry about a few walkers when animals were being killed in their hundreds of thousands. But the fact is that by far the largest economic cost of that foot and mouth outbreak was to tourism and related industries. Huge numbers of businesses that depend on the millions of people that visit the British countryside suffered great hardship. As others have pointed out, while farmers received compensation for the loss of their animals (but not, of course, for the emotional stress and other costs), other businesses got nothing at all.

When an outbreak like this occurs, things change fast – I remember the disbelief of Government scientists when the last outbreak of avian flu turned out not to be caused by their favoured culprits, wild birds or outdoor and organic poultry, but rather to have happened at the industrial, allegedly ‘bio-secure’ units run by Bernard Matthews.

But I do think there are some general lessons we can learn from the last foot and mouth outbreak. For hundreds of years, power in the countryside resided with large landowners. Now big farming businesses and a small number of multinational food companies have taken their place. The National Farmers’ Union still more readily represents this power than the interests of smaller farmers. Small rural businesses and visitors have little or no voice at all. Those powerful interests fought successfully to stop vaccination being used to control the last foot and mouth outbreak, because their economic interests were threatened if the UK lost disease free status.

The NFU said farmers would never agree to vaccination, even though a majority of their own members in one of the worst affected areas, Cumbria, apparently said otherwise.

So when Gordon Brown says that the Government will be ‘guided by the science’, he is displaying a continued, deep-seated ignorance of how the countryside works. Of course, scientists can tell him whether a vaccine will work or not. But that’s it for science. The rest is politics and economics.

Whose economic interests will the Government give priority to? Will he represent the millions of visitors to the British countryside, the hundreds and thousands of businesses they support, and, of course, many farmers too? The lesson we have to learn from the last outbreak of foot and mouth is that Tony Blair was wrong to give in to threats of non-compliance with vaccination from the NFU, and that he was wrong to cave in to a multinational food company when they said they would close a factory in the UK if we adopted a vaccination policy. That Blair’s decision was disastrously wrong is now widely recognised. But if Gordon Brown thinks that it is the Chief Vet’s job to tell him who’s economic interests he should favour, we may be in for another foot and mouth disaster.

We can all help. Foot and mouth poses no risk to people. Vaccines against many serious diseases are widely used in farming, including organic farming (as they are in human health). Apart from vegans, all of us consume dairy products and meat from vaccinated animals. We can make it clear to Gordon Brown that whatever ‘the science’ tells him to do, we don’t want those funeral pyres back, and we don’t want the countryside closed. In return, we will eat the products of animals vaccinated against foot and mouth just as happily as we now eat animals vaccinated against many other diseases.

Peter Melchett is an organic farmer in Norfolk, with beef cattle, pigs and sheep, and Policy Director of The Soil Association.

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One Response to “The politics of FMD – quoting Peter Melchett”

  1. Middle Man Says:

    You might enjoy this:

    http://caughtinthemiddleman.wordpress.com/2007/11/16/sheep-to-the-slaughter/

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