Foot and mouth is a good thing

If our herds are infected it can only be of benefit in the long run

George Monbiot
Thursday March 29, 2001
The Guardian,7369,464774,00.html

Last week a friend working in Kenya explained Britain's foot and mouth policy to a Maasai cattle herder. The nomad found our approach horrifying and hilarious in equal measure. His first objection was that all cattle belong to the Maasai, and no one had asked their permission. Then he wanted to know why Britain found it so hard to suppress a disease which the Maasai had learnt to control generations ago. When my friend explained that we were hoping to start selling our meat abroad once more, he was mystified: "Why on earth would you want to do that?" he asked. This is a good question, which we in Britain have so far failed to ask, let alone to answer.

Yesterday, the Times suggested that our meat exports are worth "up to 1bn a year". As usual, the paper of record seems to be making it up as it goes along. The Ministry of Agriculture's figures for last year show that we exported 310m worth of cattle, pigs and sheep to the European Union, and next to nothing elsewhere. Interestingly, this figure represents a decline of 39% from 1999. If this trend continues, our exports will dwindle to zero in three years' time. But it won't continue. Foot and mouth, for most foreign buyers, is the final straw, confirming their well-founded suspicion that our farming is unsafe. There is no guarantee that exports will resume at all when the UK is declared free from disease.

Most of our livestock sales, moreover, are subsidised, by both headage and export payments. The truckers who drive them around are also state assisted, as their fuel and road taxes now pay only some 80% of the costs they impose on the Exchequer. Livestock sales, in other words, are likely to cost the country more than they make.

So parts of the countryside have been declared off limits, the tourist industry has been all but obliterated, rare breeds have been slaughtered and hundreds of businesses have been closed to protect an industry which is worth not 1bn a year, not 570m as ministers have claimed, not even the 310m that Maff figures show, but, in all probability, less than nothing.

Surely then, there must be other reasons for the government's declaration of war with Britain's sheep? One compelling argument is that Europe insists we stamp out the disease. But the European rules - which arose, anyway, from the British insistence on curtailing foot and mouth through mass slaughter - are designed to protect trade between member states. Were we to abandon our fantasy animal exports, then the requirement would become obsolete.

Foot and mouth disease does have implications for animal welfare. In extreme cases, livestock suffer gravely from the lesions on their mouths and feet. But we can put down animals in this condition without having to slaughter the entire herd, let alone the healthy stock on surrounding farms. Indeed, one of the many idiocies of the mass slaughter programme is that animals in distress are reached no faster than animals which aren't suffering at all: it prolongs pain, rather than relieving it. The selective culling of badly infected stock, moreover, is likely to lead to an improvement in disease resistance, which many of our over-developed new breeds are now woefully lacking. Any suffering caused by foot and mouth would surely be offset by terminating the cruel and unnecessary live transport of animals to other countries.

There is no doubt that foot and mouth will also lead to reduced yields of milk and meat, but it's hard to understand why this should be considered a problem. Thanks to overproduction, the EU has introduced a quota system which ensures that every time we buy a pint of milk, we have to pay two pence over the market price.

The benefits of endemic foot and mouth, by contrast, must surely be obvious. It would encourage farmers to develop local markets for their produce, which is the only strategy which makes both economic and environmental sense. It would reduce the number of lorries on the roads. It would persuade breeders to phase out strains with poor resistance to disease and inherent welfare problems, and return to hardier types which don't require such intensive management.

So the government's decision to start vaccinating livestock should be opposed, on the grounds that it might eliminate foot and mouth from Britain. The ministry should continue to spread the disease around as rapidly as possible, by pursuing a slaughter programme it doesn't have the capacity to implement, leaving piles of rotting animals strewn around the countryside, then setting fire to them so that the virus is lifted into the jetstream and widely dispersed. If the vaccination programme is successful, then, as an urgent strategic priority, the government should reinfect the country forthwith.