Up in Smoke

Was Britain's response to foot-and-mouth disease a case of 'overkill'?

World Reports

Great Britain–Foot-and-mouth disease is a condition from which most animals recover. The cure for foot-and-mouth, by contrast, is a condition from which Britain may never recover. The treatment, in other words, is far graver than the disease.

The closure of the British countryside has destroyed hundreds of businesses and thousands of jobs. Rare breeds and sheep specially adapted to their home ranges have been eliminated. The burning has polluted the air with dioxins, while the burials threaten to pollute our water supplies. Foot-and-mouth has to be controlled by these means, the Government insists, to protect the export trade. So what, exactly, is being saved?

The UK’s exports of meat and livestock amounted to £310 million [$442.6 million] last year, down 39 percent from 1999. At this rate, there will be no export trade left to protect within three years, with or without foot-and-mouth disease. In any case, for many foreign buyers, this latest British farming disaster is the final straw: Even if we do succeed in eliminating the disease, significant exports are unlikely to resume. The killings, the shutdowns and the bankruptcies have taken place to save an industry that is worth approximately nothing.

Some people may have assumed there has been one beneficial consequence of these mad massacres. As the countryside has been closed during the breeding season, Britain’s wildlife is likely to have been less disturbed by the presence of humans than at any time since the retreat of the glaciers. Surely this has to be a good thing?

Not so. Well-managed access presents few problems for wildlife. The absence of human intervention, by contrast, could cause lasting damage to some of our closely managed habitats. Many of the semi-natural landscapes in which some of our rarest plants and animals survive are maintained by grazing. In some reserves, sheep and cattle have been left in their winter pastures, with the result that fragile grasslands are being overgrazed.

Conservation work has been suspended all over the country. The British Trust of Ornithology has had to cancel most of its bird surveys. At this time of year, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) would normally be locating the nests of some of Britain’s rarest breeding birds and working with farmers to make sure they are not damaged.

But these problems are minor compared to some of the possible long-term impacts of the control program. Most of the farmers driven out of business will be small ones and their land will be bought up by bigger operators, who tend to do more damage to the environment than small producers. Much of our remaining lowland pasture is likely to be converted to arable, with an accompanying loss of habitats. This may be partly offset by the loss of stock from the overgrazed uplands.

So can anything be salvaged from this draconian cure for a relatively mild disease? Well, if Prime Minister Tony Blair’s suggestion that we should re-think the way we farm can be taken at face value, then foot-and-mouth could, perhaps, signal the beginning of the end of six decades of agricultural disaster.

The trouble began with the 1947 Agriculture Act, which arose from the close relationship established between civil servants and big landowners during WWII. The act, like the Common Agricultural Policy that shapes the course of British farming today, sought to keep farmers on the land by subsidizing them, but it had the opposite effect.

Subsidies drive small farmers out of business and, by rewarding production, encourage farmers to destroy wildlife habitats. The pesticides and fertilizers needed to boost production poison the water and kill wildlife.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), anxious to protect the livestock exporters, prevented the government from vaccinating animals at the beginning of the crisis, with disastrous consequences. Many farmers say the NFU now represents only the interests of big business–the exporters, the barley barons and even the superstores–rather than those of most of its members.

The Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) has become so involved with big corporations that I would describe it as institutionally corrupt. MAFF’s official policy is to facilitate “consolidation,” which means that farming is now the only industry in Britain being encouraged to concentrate on high-volume, low-value production, even though its sale is limited by geography. The policy, in other words, makes no economic sense.

At present, the UK spends some £230 million [$328 million] a year on protecting the rural landscape through agri-environment schemes and some £5 billion [$7 billion] on destroying it. Either the entire European farm budget should be redeployed to defend the environment and rural labor or it should be scrapped altogether and replaced by a regulatory regime that forces farmers to carry their own costs, rather than dumping them onto the environment. This would favor small, organic farms.

We should also stop producing over-developed super-stock and return to hardier breeds, with a wider genetic base and less susceptibility to disease.

We must begin to challenge the dominance of the superstores. By sourcing their produce from just a handful of farmers, by bypassing auctioneers and small abattoirs and centralizing their distribution networks, the superstores have helped to destroy both the rural economy and the rural environment.

The government will do none of this by itself, but things are beginning to change. People are already voting with their wallets. In the UK, demand for organic food is doubling every two years, while local farmers’ markets have increased from two in 1998 to 300 today. Now we must match this consumer pressure with political pressure and demand a farming system that defends both our ecology and our economy.

George Monbiot is the author of Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (Macmillan). This commentary first appeared in the May 2001 issue of BBC Wildlife.

The Real Threats: Greed, Panic and Globalization

“What started as a control policy developed into a manic killing frenzy, destroying the very fabric of British farming. A rapid vaccination program could have brought this epidemic to a skidding halt in 30 days.”

Former Environmental Health Officer Richard North

“Our policy of transporting farm animals vast distances in the name of free trade has made the outbreak far worse. It is time to regionalize our food system.”

British Green Party politician Bernard Little

“The war against farm animals reflects the insanity of those who promote globalized, industrialized food systems that create and spread disease…. This ’zero-tolerance’ for disease has led to a zero-tolerance for animals…. The countryside has been turned into a war zone.”

Indian scientist and activist Vandana Shiva

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

For $20 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.