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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 14:15 GMT
Foot-and-mouth: The unasked questions
Ben Gill and NFU placard,  PA
The NFU's Ben Gill: Foot-and-mouth destroyed many livelihoods
Alex Kirby

The farmers have delivered their verdict on last year's foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the UK.

The National Farmers' Union president, Ben Gill, is clear whom to blame.

He said: "The lessons of the 1967 outbreak were very clearly ignored. The Government was ill-prepared, overwhelmed and, too often, incompetent. This time they must listen."

But the whole of modern agriculture has lessons to learn. The NFU describes the handling of the outbreak as "a catalogue of failures on every issue from import controls and contingency planning to communications".

Despite this broadside of condemnation, though, the NFU does not raise some of the key questions that lie behind its concerns.

Meeting summoned

It says, rightly, that controls on imports of meat (and other foods) are inadequate.

At the moment, health inspectors are able to examine only a tiny sample of food imports arriving in the UK by sea and air.

Sheep awaiting burial,  AP
More than six million animals were slaughtered
To scrutinise the flow of goods thoroughly would immediately halt the international trade in agricultural products to which the NFU is committed.

To its credit, the NFU has called a meeting bringing together for the first time a dozen organisations to explore how to reduce the risk of importing animal and plant diseases.

Once inside the UK, diseases are rapidly given the run of the country by the long-distance transport of farm animals.

The NFU rightly says that "the government and the veterinary authorities did not fully appreciate the nature, pattern and scale of livestock movements in the UK".

It describes as "simplistic" those who blame the spread of foot-and-mouth "on so-called 'modern' or 'intensive' farming practices".

Certainly, the government should have known far more about official livestock movements, and did not. But it did not - and perhaps could not - know about unofficial movements and unregistered exchanges of animals, which did so much to spread the disease.

The outbreak has raised more fundamental concerns than how to keep disease at bay or limit its spread once it is here.

Many farmers themselves said last year they thought vaccination would be preferable to mass slaughter to get foot-and-mouth under control.

Sales or welfare

The NFU wants the government and the European Union to "explore the circumstances in which vaccination might be used to advantage as part of alternative and more flexible control strategies".

So far, so good. But the NFU's critics say this does not go far enough.

Sign warning horseriders off infected area,  AP
The rural economy is more than just farming
They believe it is driven by the economic imperatives of agri-business to choose slaughter, in the hope of safeguarding markets.

Perhaps this is wrong. But the critics still believe the NFU, unlike many individual farmers, is concerned more with economics than with animal welfare.

Farmers are now busy restocking their holdings to replace the animals they lost last year. It is a golden opportunity to ask what is the right stocking level for particular areas, and for the entire country.

Many areas had too many sheep, a surplus encouraged by the European common agricultural policy.

But with foot-and-mouth "ending the farming lives", in Ben Gill's words, of many farmers, there could hardly be a better time to thin out the national flock.

And farmers have not been the only ones to suffer. The livelihoods - and sometimes the lives - of many people who live and work in the countryside have been damaged.

One lesson, surely, is that in any future outbreak everybody's interests need protecting.


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See also:

17 Jan 02 | Foot and mouth
Foot-and-mouth epidemic
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