The crisis in Macedonia has continued to be the British press's leading European news item (see the UK press reviews from 12 March 2001 and 19 March 2001), but another issue dominates domestic coverage: Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), which appears out of control in mainland Britain and has now cropped up in Eire, France and the Netherlands. It follows hot on the heels of BSE ("mad cow disease"). Britain, now infamous for its unwelcome agricultural exports, was recently christened the "leper of Europe" by an Irish minister.
There are strong suggestions that European farming practices might never be the same again. "The opportunity to change direction is the silver lining in the European farming crisis," commented British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently. (Daily Telegraph, 7 March)
A growing movement of opinion favours the "renationalisation" of agricultural policy and the promotion of smaller-scale, organic farming, combined with the reduction or phasing out of the EU's lucrative Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies. These developments will disappoint the large numbers of farmers from Poland and other EU applicant states in Central and Eastern Europe.
The sick country
British agriculture has many charges to answer at present. That BSE was "Made in the UK" could perhaps be portrayed (albeit unconvincingly) as bad luck. That Britain exported potentially contaminated beef after it was banned domestically was unforgivable. With FMD the latest British export to its European partners, the pattern looks very suspicious.
"Go away. This evil has come to us from your whore of an England, once again," was the greeting offered by a French farmer to Independent journalist John Lichfield (14 March). And when fans of North London football club Arsenal travelled to Munich for their recent Champions' League game, the Bavarian Farmers' Association told German football fans to "keep their distance" from their British counterparts, lest they were contaminated by FMD. (Independent, 15 March 2001)
About Foot and Mouth
FMD is a highly infectious but rarely fatal disease affecting cloven-hoofed animals, principally sheep, cattle and pigs. The name derives from the symptom displayed by infected cattle, which develop blisters around the mouth and feet. Infected animals lose weight and milk production drops. The virus is passed on very easily by contact or in the air—and airborne infection is known to be possible over distances of several miles.
However, animals generally recover within three weeks, making FMD equivalent to human influenza. The problem is thus an economic one. Infected animals are less productive, and, moreover, many export markets refuse to accept livestock from countries which are not free of the disease or which employ vaccination, because vaccinated animals cannot easily be distinguished from infected ones. To maximise exports, since 1991 the EU has banned the practice of vaccination.
The British tactics for dealing with the disease have been to instigate massive culling of herds, which are infected or may have been exposed to infection. Hundreds of thousands of animals not suffering from a fatal disease are being slaughtered and burned on massive funeral pyres, to the resigned acceptance of a probable majority but the notable distress of many.
"To be killed for having flu is as sick as it gets," wrote Joan Smith in The Independent on 4 March. On the front page of The Independent on 4 March, Geoffrey Lean wrote a memorable attack on the British Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF), contending that FMD is not "a devastating killer plague" but merely "an economic disease," whereas "BSE really is a terrifying plague which has killed 80 people, slowly and horrifically" already. He attaches the greatest blame to MAFF, which cares little for human or animal health: "what gets it exercised… is a threat to the profitability of agribusiness."
There is a mounting tide of opinion in favour of changes to the way British and European agriculture are run. It seems to have taken the arrival of FMD to make Britain consider seriously the questions raised by the BSE epidemic: "radical thinking on how best to feed the nation is long overdue," asserted The Times (22 March).
The Independent on Sunday (18 March) argued that the fundamental causes of the new outbreak "originate with the industrialisation of farming and the relentless demand for cheap meat from supermarkets and their consumers," reminding us to consider why there are so many sheep there to catch FMD—because the EU's CAP subsidy and price-guarantee system encourages farmers to rear more animals and produce more crops than are needed for feeding European populations.
Others have lambasted both the system of farming and the way that the reaction to FMD has sought only to protect farmers' economic interests, when the real victims are the animals, consumers and other rural industries. "Now our tourist industry faces ruin. All because of farming," ran the headline in The Observer on 11 March.
Alternatives are being suggested. Germany's new agriculture minister, the environmentalist Green Renate Künast, has called for a move away from intensive farming. Imre Karacs's article in The Independent on 12 March noted that Sweden is reaping the rewards of Astrid Lindgren's Law, passed in the mid-1980s, which "banished the excesses of modern farming and offered Europe an environmentally friendly model for food production at affordable prices." Good animal welfare has led to disease-free and profitable agriculture in the years since.
Poland and reform of the CAP
All this is of great relevance to Poland and other Central and Eastern European states lining up to join the EU, because farming subsidies are naturally one of the great attractions of EU membership to Poland, as well as one of the major stumbling blocks in current accession negotiations. France and Spain have resisted previous attempts to reform the CAP, but highly agricultural Poland would surely bankrupt the system, and with this incentive they may now accept the arguments for moving away from intensive and subsidised agriculture.
"In Poland," wrote Stephen Castle in The Independent (3 March), "nearly a quarter of the labour force is employed on the land and much of agriculture is still at the horse and cart stage. A reform which restricts EU payments to thousands of Polish farmers may be in the interests of Paris as well as advocates of sustainable agriculture."
"The trail of smoke is also wafting over the Vistula and down the Danube," wrote David Walker in The Guardian (5 March). "What is happening to British farming or, more precisely, to tax-funded support for it is bad news for the Poles and other would-be eastern European entrants to the EU. National food regimes are coming and they will dam or divert the stream of support payments the candidates have been banking on."
Oliver Craske, 23 March 2001
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