Foot and mouth


Over the last two months, since mid-February 2001, Britain’s livestock has been ravaged by an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD). The disease itself – surprisingly in view of the hysteria with which its spread has been greeted – is fatal to neither man nor beast. It affects animals like a bad dose of flu, from which they recover, albeit slowly. Yet the government has responded, supposedly at the behest of “Britain’s farmers”, with a policy of mass slaughter of for the most part perfectly healthy animals, refusing to countenance what one might have thought would be the obvious alternative – vaccination. In the parts of the country worst affected, i.e., Cumbria, Devon and Dumfries, the landscape has been turned into a vision of hell, with hundreds of thousands of carcasses of slaughtered animals awaiting disposal lying around in fields. A ban on the movement of animals has been imposed, with the result that healthy animals are starving to death or drowning in mud because they cannot be moved to a safe place even down the road. Thousands of small farmers and other small businesses are being bankrupted. On top of that, the funeral pyres, fuelled with creosoted railway sleepers, are releasing carcinogenic dioxins into their air.

Of course, humanity will never be able to free itself from the ravages of natural disaster, but, although FMD itself is natural, its disastrous outcome is entirely profit driven – it is a curse of capitalism, not a curse of nature. As the

Economist

of 3 March 2001 says (‘Plague Island’), “

The FMD outbreak is not about an unquantifiable risk to human life, but about money

“. The animal infected with FMD ceases to be as productive, i.e., as profitable, as the uninfected ones. It must therefore be scrapped – a ‘logic’ which is also applied in capitalist society to human beings when their productivity at work is through incapacity or age below the average: they are not slaughtered like the animals are, but they are certainly deprived of their ability to earn their living and to their right to human dignity.

In the case of animals, however, there is no reason for them to succumb to FMD because they can be vaccinated and, if vaccinated, they lose none of their productivity. Yet vaccination is resolutely resisted. The reason for this is that the United States, Japan and South Korea do not accept imports of vaccinated animals – dead or alive. For the sake of preserving access to these markets, the domain almost exclusively of large agribusiness, the British economy is calculated to have lost some £9 billion already (according to

The Times

of 28 March 2001, ‘Farmer’s bid to save 41p may have started it’). Yet the value of the entire meat export market is valued at no more than £310 million a year. For the sake of some unspecified proportion of this £310 million which will be lost as a result of the closure of the US, Japanese and Korean markets, the vaccination option, which alone could have halted the progress of the disease and saved the lives of the million animals that have been culled to date, was rejected. The likely losses to the agricultural industry have been calculated by Pricewaterhouse Coopers at between £500 million and £1,600 million, but “

these losses are smaller than those expected in the tourism industry. With antional parks and many other properties closed for the duration, tourism and related businesses in rural Britain are already suffering.”

Pricewaterhouse Coopers have calculated that the tourist industry is

“set to lose

[at least]

5.8% of potential revenues

[from overseas tourists]

in 2001 … twice the loss of the agricultural sector”

(

Economist,

31 March 2001, ‘Foot and Mouth Disease, the costs and cures’). Losses from domestic tourism could be three times as much. The total loss to the tourism industry is estimated to be in the region of £4 billion.

The farmers whose animals are culled get compensation. Not so the tourist industry, and not so the farmers affected by restrictions on the movement of their animals not subjected to the cull. Eric Taylforth explained to David Rose of the

Observer

(15 April 2001 “

the human and financial side to the emerging catastrophe. He had spent the winter rearing 60 cattle which he should have sold a month ago. Because of the disease he had been unable to move them. ‘Instead of getting that income, I’m paying for their food and housing. I don’t have the pasture to put them out to grass. There’s no prospect of getting rid of them for at least six months … Our income is zero … just to keep the animals fed we’ve had to increase our overdraft by £30,000. On this basis, we can’t carry on.”

Vaccination

A mass vaccination programme, which would only have cost some £5 per animal, would have stopped the disease in its tracks. Yet throughout the crisis we have been told by the government and the National Farmers’ Union that vaccination is not the answer. Even the British Veterinary Association and the British Cattle Veterinary Association,

“the country’s two main representative bodies with a combined membership of more than 12,000, told ‘The Times’ that they shared the misgivings of the National Union of Farmers and had advised the Government against limited vaccination of cattle in Cumbria and Devon”

(

The Times,

19 April 2001, ‘Vets fear foot-and-mouth ‘leper’ status) have joined this meretricious lobby. Their duplicity is exposed by Magnus Linklater writing in

The Times

of 17 April (‘Unforgivable sin’) demanding to know why the establishment is insisting on ignoring both the scientific evidence that points to the uselessness of relying on culling to contain FMD epidemics and the equally scientific evidence, and practical experience most recently gained in Algeria, Macedonia and Albania, in favour of the efficacy of vaccination. “

The most you will get from officials or unions

[meaning the National Farmers’ Union, which is not a trade union but an employers’ organisation]

is that vaccination has ‘major drawbacks'; it is a last resort; it will finish off our export trade; the housewife will never buy vaccinated meat; you would have to kill all the vaccinated animals anyway. All these arguments are false …

Myth One: all vaccinated animals must be slaughtered. Wrong. Vaccinated animals can and should go into the food chain …

Myth Two: vaccinated animals will become carriers; not so. Carrier frequency in infected non-vaccinates and infected vaccinates is similar. There is no question of a non-inflected animal becoming a carrier because it has been vaccinated.

Myth Three: the vaccine is not safe and might not work. FMD vaccines contain killed virus and provide immunity lasting some six months. High load antigen vaccines can induce immunity in 4 to 5 days. The present generation is deemed safe.

Myth Four: you cannot tell if a vaccinated animal is infected or not. Yes you can. Tests can identify the infected animals.

Myth Five: Vaccination threatens Britain’s disease-free status. No more than the present policy …

Myth Six: we do not have a sufficient quantity of vaccines. There is at least enough vaccine immediately to replace the mass cull with ‘ring’ vaccination in the worst affected areas.”

Intensive farming methods encourage the spread of disease

There can be no doubt that ‘globalisation’ makes any epidemic of this kind particularly difficult to contain. Quite apart from the obvious fact that disease can always follow both human travellers and cargo, there are other unavoidable consequences of the growth of monopoly that tends towards promoting disease. Clearly disease must be able to spread more rapidly in conditions of intensive farming. Less obviously, the impoverishment of small farmers also creates the conditions which promote disease. To explain these points, Professor Tim Lang of Thames Valley University is quoted by Michael Mann in the

Financial Times

of 27 February 2001 (‘A sick industry’) as saying in relation to the outbreak and rapid spread of FMD:

I believe we are seeing the downside of the intensification of the food supply chain over the last 18 to 20 years. It didn’t cause the foot-and-mouth virus but it has created the conditions under which it is likely to spread.”

The

Financial Times

enlarges on this point:

“The questions are particularly acute in the UK, which has developed big, low-cost farms over the past two decades. The process has been encouraged by food manufacturers, which have operated national purchasing policies

[read: monopolisation of the economy – an inevitable process of capitalism].

As a result, animals from the farm in Northumberland that is thought to have started the outbreak were sent hundreds of miles to an abattoir in Essex

[spreading their germs every inch of the way].

Regulations imposed on abattoirs to prevent the spread of BSE have put many local units out of business, accentuating the tendency towards concentration. Food companies have also imported more raw materials, increasing the risk from diseases such as the Pan-Asiatic foot and mouth strain behind the latest outbreak. ‘Britain has intensified longer, further and deeper than anyone else in the supply chain …’, says Prof Lang …

Ironically, the potential spread of the infection could be made worse by the rules intended to improve the lot of intensively farmed livestock. Thanks to EU animal transport regulations …animals on long journeys within the EU must be allowed rest period for food, water and exercise. This can increase the potential for infection to spread along the route to their destination.

There are good reasons for countries close to the UK to be afraid. Britain exported 764,000 live sheep … to the European Union last year, with 44 per cent going to France, 27 per cent to the Netherlands, 12 per cent to Italy, and 7 per cent each to Greece and Germany …

However, other European countries cannot place the blame solely with Britain. Other countries – notably France – have also intensified their farming methods, under similar commercial pressures. The Common Agricultural Policy … offers £36 billion of subsidies to farmers annually. Much of this money goes into intensive farms and agricultural enterprises.”

Alongside intensification and monopolisation of the food industry comes the ruin of small – and not so small – farmers, which itself is an encouragement to the spread of disease:

Farmers’ … poverty may be part of the problem, too. After some relatively good farming years in the early 1990s, falling world food prices and sterling’s strength against the euro have hammered domestic prices and export values slashing farm incomes in the last four years. Unusually in a business where falls in one sector tend to be counterbalanced by rises in others, all types of farming have suffered

[the smaller farmers, however, have suffered to a far greater extent than agribusiness, it should be added].

The government reckons that British farmers’ total income fell from £6 billion in 1995 to £1.8 billion in 2000.

Impoverished farmers are unlikely to call out a private vet on a whim, and might hesitate to do so in the case of FMD … There is some suggestion that the first case of FMD this time round may have passed undetected for several weeks before eventually being spotted by vets at the abattoir.

Farmers looking to reduce their expenditure also seem to have cut back on insurance. NFU Mutual, the main farming insurer, says that its annual premium for insuring against foot-and-mouth disease was only 50p per animal before this outbreak. But the proportion of farmers taking out such insurance has halved over 20 years to 10% …

” (

Economist,

3 March 2001, ‘Plague Island’).

Nor is it purely the frugality of impoverished farmers that contributes to the spread of disease. Government expenditure reductions designed to boost the profitability of British-based multinationals and their billionaire controllers also have a part to play:

So, could this outbreak have been prevented? Some people think so, and blame underinvestment in Britain’s veterinary service. Ten years ago, the agriculture ministry had 43 regional animal health offices, staffed by 303 veterinarians; last year, it ran half as many offices with a fifth fewer vets. The number of government laboratories for disease testing has also fallen. As Joe Brownlie, at the Royal Veterinary College, points out, this understaffing makes it more difficult to provide surveillance for emerging diseases such as FMD”

(

ibid.

).

Only the rich have a voice

The

Economist

of 14 April (‘Oh to be in England’) points out that “

The farmers … have their own government department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They have a well-organised union to speak for them. They have lots of rich men among their number, who can corner their friends and relations in the corridors of power.”

Needless to say, it is not all farmers who have this power, but only a tiny minority of the largest industrial farmers. As Libby Purves points out in

The Times

of 17 April, “

They say that mass slaughter was what ‘the farmers’ wanted, yet for weeks now it has been only the large-scale industrial meat-producers who have backed it. Small farmers’ organisations, National Park shepherds with precious hefted flocks, breeders of fine dairy cattle and rare breeds societies all beg for the option to vaccinate”.

Their pleas fall on deaf ears because it is to promote the interests of the super-rich alone – i.e., the profits that they make from selling meat abroad wherever the market is most buoyant – that life saving vaccination has been rejected. As a result, thousands of small businesses have gone or will go to the wall and, naturally, thousands of workers will be made redundant. The £9 billion in losses will overwhelmingly be borne by small people who don’t matter to the monopolists, or the Labour government that is representing them – in fact the monopolists are glad to see their competitors driven out of business.

Only this can explain the fact that the government is prepared to withstand calls for vaccination for the sake of a mere £310 million a year in total sales from overseas trading, when £9 billion is being lost. It is not so much the amount of this profit as WHOSE profit it is that is threatened, WHO stands to lose out. Since the rich and powerful will be able to cut their losses most effectively only if the cull succeeds in eradicating the disease without resort to vaccination, this is the policy that is followed.

Conclusion

So long as capitalism continues to reign supreme, nobody can prevent the intensification and concentration of agricultural production. Nobody can prevent the gradual elimination and ruin of the smaller farmers and those using healthier but more labour-intensive farming methods. Not only can nobody prevent the sacrifice of animals on the altar of profit, the sacrifice of the well being of human beings is also routine.