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Issue 56, May 2001

The burning fields of Britain

THE FOOT and mouth outbreak proves that intensive agriculture has one priority: the pursuit of profit. And the response by the New Labour government poses a greater threat to people's health, animal welfare and the environment than the disease itself. Burning thousands of carcasses on open pyres is spewing harmful particulates and carcinogenic dioxins into the atmosphere. Water has been contaminated. And three people are being tested for the disease.

Foot and mouth generally affects cloven-hoofed animals. They become feverish. Boils in their mouths make it difficult to eat. Blisters develop on hooves. The vast majority of animals, however, recover. It takes longer for agriculture to get back on its feet as infection results in the loss of disease-free status. The last time the disease was seen in Britain was in 1981, but in 1967 there was a major outbreak with 2,364 cases; 433,987 animals were slaughtered.

The most likely route of infection is through the proximity of healthy and infected animals, although the virus can become airborne. It can stay intact for a week in non-acid soil in a British summer. In winter it can survive for about a month. The present outbreak began on 20 February and a ban was imposed on all Britain's animal exports on 21 February.

New Labour has slavishly followed the National Farmers Union (NFU). The NFU has rejected the use of vaccination because it would mean the loss of disease-free status of British meat longer than mass culling would, adversely affecting exports. The sums do not add up. Meat and dairy exports are worth around 630m per year but the total cost of foot and mouth, including losses to the tourist industry, has been estimated at a staggering 40bn.

 

The NFU represents approximately 60,000 out of 150,000 full-time farmers. This 'union' voices the interests of the wealthiest farmers with the biggest share of the export market. They receive the lion's share of government and EU subsidies and stand to gain the most from compensation payments for culled livestock. By the time the animals have recovered, they have lived longer than usual and have eaten more food, used up more resources and labour time - they cost more and produce less. Farmers receive compensation, so it makes perfect commercial sense to kill them. The argument for slaughter is in the economic interest of the elite, large-scale farmers.

The disease shocked Britain. Many areas are still off limits. Images of burning animals have gone around the world. The general election was postponed. Every footpath in every national park was out of bounds, along with 2.5m acres of Forestry Commission land. Horse racing and rugby matches were called off. Dolly the sheep quarantined. To date, nearly 1,500 animals have been infected and 1.6m slaughtered. Around 350,000 dead animals are awaiting disposal.

The worst is now over, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (Maff). But it could be a long time before foot and mouth has been eradicated. The NFU's desired disease-free status could be a long way off yet, especially if reports are confirmed that foot and mouth has begun to infect deer and wild boar.

Agribusiness is run to make money, not feed people. And it is the big players - large-scale arable and factory farmers and supermarket chains - who are cashing in. Smallholders are being driven to the wall. Farm workers survive on poverty pay, working in appalling conditions. Consumers get nondescript meat pumped full of antibiotics and vegetables soaked in pesticides.

 

The big five supermarkets - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Safeway and Somerfield - account for approximately 80% of grocery sales. They wield enormous economic power. Since 1995, Tesco pre-tax profits have risen from 551m to 842m; Asda 258m to 410m. Sainsbury's profits are now 888m. Their buyers force down prices by negotiating bulk contracts with farmers. They dictate the size and breed of animal. Superstores use designated abattoirs, forcing smaller local abattoirs to shut down - since 1980, 800 abattoirs have closed. Animals travel hundreds of miles to be butchered and return as packages on shelves.

To be allowed to describe meat as 'Scotch beef' or 'Welsh lamb', the animal has to have been pastured in the respective country for two weeks. They are moved from one destination to another in order to increase the price. The supermarkets are in the business of making super-profits, not providing cheap food. Livestock markets bring masses of animals together in ideal breeding grounds for disease. Not only does this movement maximise the risk of infection, it also massively increases road congestion and fuel pollution.

A report by Elm Farm Research Centre, a prominent veterinary study centre, concluded: "This infection is simply too infectious under British conditions in high-density stockrearing areas for control by slaughter policy". It proposed vaccination. (The Guardian, 20 March) There are a number of strategies involving a combination of vaccination and culling. Depending on the method, Britain's foot and mouth-free status would be regained between three months and a year.

 

For farmers on the bottom of the ladder, this outbreak could not have come at a worse time. The strong pound, payment of farm subsidies in euros, BSE, swine fever, foot and mouth, and overproduction in the world market - while the 'free market' consigns billions of people to hunger and starvation - have exacerbated the situation. Deloitte and Touche Farming Results survey states: "Farmers have suffered the lowest average incomes since our survey began eleven years ago... In the last five years, the net farm income of a 200-hectare family farm has plunged from around 80,000 to just 8,000". (The Guardian, 29 March)

New Labour's handling of the crisis has reinforced people's suspicions of British agriculture. Confidence was already at an all-time low after years of food scares. But, given New Labour's craven worship of big business, it inevitably keeps to the bosses' agenda. The government rejected advice which could have prevented the outbreak from ever taking place. Three years ago, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee - a government body - recommended outlawing feeding pigs on catering waste (swill), the likely source of this current outbreak. Maff decided on 'tighter regulation' instead. A cop out.

The government has jerked from complacency to panic and back again. Maff accepts that the pyres could spread the prion which causes BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD - the human variant of BSE), yet carries on regardless. The BSE prion is very hard to destroy. Nobody knows how many people have contracted vCJD - it could be hundreds or hundreds of thousands. But the disease is always fatal. The pyres could also be spreading foot and mouth itself.

 

In the six weeks to 6 April, 63 grams of dioxins had been released, compared with an annual output of 88 grams from Britain's factories. The World Health Organisation recommended limit is 30 billionths of a gram each year per person. Dioxins accumulate in fat and work their way through the food chain at ever increasing levels. The government argues that more dioxins are released on bonfire night, but they are hundreds of thousands of small fires which burn for a few hours. The foot and mouth pyres are massive, constructed with chemically-treated railway sleepers and tyres, fuelled by paraffin. They can burn for over a week.

Disposing of the carcasses is an immense task. The safest way of dealing with them is rendering - using intense heat and pressure to remove fat and water. But Britain does not have the capacity to deal with the volume of dead animals in this way. The carcasses could be buried - a quicker and easier method which stops the virus spreading. Unless the burial pits or landfill sights are carefully chosen, designed and constructed, however, decaying animals will infect water sources and land.

Vaccination has to be introduced. Communities must be able to decide how to deal with the carcasses. The number of food inspectors has to be dramatically increased. On that basis, local abattoirs could be reopened, and transport over long distances of live animals for slaughter stopped.

As long as we have a government which puts big-business interests first it will not happen. The saying, 'you are what you eat', conjures up a nightmare image in today's capitalist, profit-driven world. We must get rid of chemically-saturated food and the disgusting conditions animals suffer.

 

That will only be possible in a society where there are no fat-cats at the top creaming-off the wealth while most people live in poverty. Society could be planned and run by working-class people in the interests of the majority. It would be based on human respect and solidarity. Such a society - a socialist system - would ensure that agriculture served people's needs, while protecting animal welfare and the environment.

Manny Thain

Correction: In the article, Where's the Cash in Global Warming? (Socialism Today No.55), we wrote: "The US pours more than 1,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year..." (page 24, third column). Of course, this is very wide of the mark. The figure should be 1,600 million tonnes!


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