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Monday, 12 March, 2001, 13:20 GMT
Farming: What is to be done?
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British agriculture is being brought to its knees and farmers in other parts of Europe are panicking. All because of the foot-and-mouth virus that threatens farmers' profits.
The outbreak raises questions about the intensive farming methods prevalent in the developed world.
Traditional rearing methods are largely abandoned in favour of huge farms in which ever-larger herds of animals are raised in factory conditions before being transported huge distances for slaughter.
This is a perfect recipe for spreading diseases, critics say.
And massive subsidies to farmers in America and the European Union distort free competition at the expense of developing world farmers and consumers, they argue.
Are huge, intensive farms the problem, rather than the answer, to our food needs?
We discussed this issue on Talking Point ON AIR, the phone-in programme of the BBC World Service and BBC News Online.
This Talking Point is now closed. A selection of your e-mails are posted below.
I was disgusted to read in Glasgow's Herald newspaper yesterday, that meat from countries infected with foot-and-mouth disease was still being imported into Britain, 12 days after the disease was discovered. How do your farmers stand a chance when their governing authorities are doing nothing to protect the farming industry?
I can't believe people are comparing the UK agricultural industry to those in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The UK has one of the highest population densities in the world, meaning there are lots of people to feed and not much land to do it on. Hence farms are lined up one next to the other, with lots of people squeezed in between, making it extremely easy for a disease like this to spread quickly once it has entered the country from abroad (which it has). You can hardly blame the farmers for this.
Everyone is blaming intensive farming practices here, but the most intensive farming happens in the USA and they have not had FMD since the 1920's What they do have is a far more tougher policy of food imports and food produce brought into the country as anyone who has been to the States will have found out when they go through customs.
Tara Elliott, UK
Animals are not being driven long distances to abattoirs because of the EC or the farmers. It is the big supermarket chains that specify where they want the animals slaughtered.
If you want to stop this then buy from butchers instead of being too lazy to visit more than just the supermarket when shopping.
Once again the farmers find themselves in a cesspit of their own making and once again the tax-payer will foot the bill. They get subsidised when they have problems, they get subsidised when they don't have problems and they get paid for set aside - what is that all about? If your business can't stand on it's own two feet, why on earth should I have to pay to keep it going?
I am totally disgusted at the constant attacks towards farmers made by so many members of the British general public. Who do you think puts the food on your table? Where do you think the food on your supermarket shelves comes from? Its about time this nation of ours grew up and started supporting the farming community, unless you really want to destroy British agriculture and buy foreign rubbish?
We have got rid of our nasty, dirty
coal and shipping industries, now
we are managing to rid ourselves
of that horrible, smelly fishing and
farming. With art and architecture,
philosophy and politics, human
and animal rights, fashion and
music, who needs all this industry
I am amazed by the way in which the Government is allowing the British farmer to become extinct. This is a crisis - isn't that what politicians are elected to handle? I see such a change in recent years. Even before foot-and-mouth, sheep farmers were in serious distress as the cost of producing lamb is now far more than it can be sold for. In the USA there wouldn't be such a laissez-faire attitude. Is Britain ruled from Europe now? It looks as if British farmers are being flushed down the sewer along with British national identity and autonomy.
Simon Ward, Exeter,Devon
Britain has become a breeding ground for animal diseases because of years of institutional neglect. While other nations took increased precautions to track animal movements and stop the spread of diseases, the Thatcher-Major governments did nothing, in the name of the market and liberalisation. This took absurd proportions during the BSE crisis, when they buried their heads as deep as possible in euro phobia. It will take Britain years to catch up with the health and safety standards of modern agriculture. Sadly, the farmers who will suffer for this are mostly innocent.
They close down Corus, and there's nothing but a bit of news coverage, and a couple of unconvincing "tsk tsk" noises from the government. This is more or less the case with any industrial loss, yet when it comes to farming, not only are they constantly on handouts, but when anything goes wrong, compensations fly all over the place, we are given suicide statistics and told not to insist on a ban on fox dismembering, for it is insensitive!
The behaviour of some of the people in the above discussion group is shocking. The blame must lie a) with the government for allowing imports of cheap foreign meat and animals and b) with the public for buying this produce. The sooner we realise that we need to give our farmers the support and money they need to revitalise the farming industry the sooner we will have save meat in this country. Criticising farmers is ridiculous as they aren't even being given a chance in the current system.
Why is it that farming is considered an almost sacred activity? Maybe in the days of yore they did feed the country, but nowadays this is no longer true. It's just a business - subsidised and given all sorts of crutches and handouts, but still just a business. It is in no way more noble or special or English than making tyres or cars. The patronising rhetoric how farmers are the very fabric of our existence only increases their delusions and, ultimately, their suffering. Politicians would also do well to drop the ridiculous tag "custodians of the countryside", for is horribly misplaced and ironic.
David Lefever, Norfolk, UK
An old adage comes back to really prove the point - "You reap what you sow". The sheer filth in factory farms and slaughterhouses alone would make a vegetarian out of most of us. So until the meat industry treats its product and its customers with care and respect, we can survive without eating meat for quite sometime. Garden burger anyone?
People seem to forget that this disease came from abroad, therefore none of our stock are immune to it. It has nothing to do with intensive farming - sheep and beef are the least intensive. It also has to be reminded that the reason that animals have to travel as far for slaughter is due to EC regulations for abattoirs, which caused so many smaller local onesto close, as they could not afford the changes necessary.
I don't feel such mass slaughter and incineration of our cattle is warranted. The disease (FMD) is not a public health hazard. Herds of wild deer (and wild boar )close to an area(s)of outbreak should be caught and vaccinated, and culling should be an option in the event of infection. The option of "selective culling" and the use of the EU's reserve of vaccine/antigen bank should be the way forward. Surveillance and control of animal movement should be strengthened. Strict quarantine measures are the first line of defence. The FMDV regularly change its genetic dandogram, hence mass slaughter is not a way forward.
The taxpayer will pay up for the farmers yet again and farmers will continue to profit from the suffering of livestock; they will continue to pollute land, air and waterways; they will continue to use harmful chemicals and antibiotics to maximise their profits..... And we will eat meat. Amen.
Yes I do think industrial farming has brought about this crisis, although I do know Foot and Mouth occurs often in poorer countries. It is no doubt the large scale farming and long-distance animal transport as (not exactly animal-friendly) that has enlarged this calamity. When handling large numbers of animals it becomes more difficult for the farmer to spot the disease before it is too late. Although not dangerous to humans, the whole saga makes me thinking about becoming vegetarian or to drastically cut down meat as food.
I am not a farmer and a laity in this field, but the growing disease which crops and animals face today, such as the much talked about mad cow disease or BSE, is much scarier. I wonder whether governments and international NGO's will not put so much interest in curbing such diseases as it has been in the case of wiping out AIDS.
The threat is a universal one and until all hands are on deck, we don't know where this disease will last.
John Sheldon, Canada
You keep saying that we can't use vaccines because it would mean admitting we have the disease... BUT WE DO HAVE the disease, so it prompts a question of are we in blind denial about using vaccine to protect having future livestock to trade at all. A burned carcass has NO export value
Seeing the clouds of smoke and steam rising from the carcass fires, I wonder how much FMD virus gets spread by the breeze before the fires are hot enough to destroy the virus?
What has most annoyed me about this FMD outbreak has been the crocodile tears of the government. They wasted yet more time kicking the country folk with their idiotic anti-hunting campaign and then the next day they say they are the 'friends of the countryside people'.
David, Cardiff, Wales
As a Canadian formerly involved in agricultural policy and now living in
Europe, I am in somewhat of a unique position regarding the current
problems of comparative approaches to animal health.
Carol Darrington, USA
Instead of constantly analysing how and why FMD has happened, why isn't there public information so people know what they should be doing to reduce the spread. We are less than 2 miles to a confirmed outbreak, the animals are due to be burned on Tuesday, and we have been unable to find any practical advice.
No, there will not be less people starving. Even now with BSE and Foot and Mouth Disease - last week French farmers wanted to destroy the meat of perfectly healthy cows in order to keep up the prices. They demonstrated against the Danish EU-commissioner because she said that it was senseless.
On the BBC world news, a UK government representative said the symptoms of foot and mouth last 2 weeks and then the animals get better. What truth is there in this statement? If it is true, why aren't the animals being left to get better instead of being needlessly slaughtered?
As humans are supposed not to be able to catch anything from infected animals, isn't the reaction to F & M a little over the mark. Let hear the real facts about the disease.
It seems to me that farmers in the UK consistently want more and more compensation and monies for doing next to nothing. These diseases and problems are brought upon themselves for their constant greed. They get money for set-aside (money for not growing anything), builders don't get paid for not laying bricks.
Foot & Mouth is serious, but what is much more serious
is the profound lack of thinking that comes from the
farmers themselves. The UK is not a place to produce
the vast amount of intensive farming that the
government, the agri-industry and the farmers want.
Farming in Britain SHOULD go the way of the mining
industry, the steel industry, and the car industry.
Globalisation is essential.
I've had many years of experience with foot-and-mouth in East and West Africa plus Brazil where the disease was endemic. Vaccination was regularly carried out against the type doing the rounds at the time which was supervised by the local Veterinary Dept using vaccine produced by Pirbright. We had also regular outbreaks of the disease which, left to run its course plus good animal husbandry, caused very few problems. The farm was put in quarantine and we lost very few animals as a result of the disease. Once it had run its course, it was business as usual. Being a viral disease it can be compared to the different flu strains that we humans get. We don't shoot humans for getting the flu do we? We don't blame the doctor either if we catch it. The livestock slaughter policy is wrong.
I would just like to offer my sympathy to any farmers reading this web page - there are far too many people with criticisms and not enough support for the farmers and others affected by this crisis who are going through a really terrible time
In bad times, farmers in most industrialized coutries are compensated for loses.I have yet to see farmer's/wholesalers/retailer's return a portion of their profits in good times!!!
Until unilateral UK welfare legislation stopped me, I used to keep intensive pigs. I now keep them outside and I dread to think what will happen if F&M gets into the outdoor pig areas of East Anglia. I believe my pigs are 10 times more likely to succumb to F&M than if they were housed. This is mainly because I cannot stop gulls & crows visiting after feeding on neighbours' units.A few large intensive units would provide less scope for disease spread than many, small, extensive ones.
Now is a good time to decide whether we want to produce food in this country, or to rely on imported goods.
The UK is not the cheapest land to produce food on however it could be risky not to have our own supply of food.
With home produced food, it is possible to control animal welfare and food safety to a greater degree than with imported food.
However the present situation is ridiculous with farmers working under strict legislation to produce high quality food that people don't buy.
In addition archaic subsidy rules lead to crops and animals being produced for waste and burning.
If you would like to rely on cheap imported food then what use would you put the farming land to?
I am a self employed outdoor pursuits instructor. Many secondary and tertiary industries are at risk of collapse if the outbreak continues. My bills still need paying. Food still needs to be put on my table. Yet no mention of compensation for the likes of me.
In the 1967 outbreak I was an advisor dealing with cattle and pigs in the
western half of Cheshire.
In those days farming was much less intense. Dairy herds were smaller, 30,
40, 50 cows, large herds were 100 cows. In may ways these small herds aided
the spread, individual herds and farms were closer together and the disease
jumped from one herd to another. Today's larger herds mean a greater
distance between individual herds, which may help slow the spread.
Here in Israel, we vaccinate against foot and mouth, also against rabies.
I can't for the life of me understand why European countries dont do the same.
Huge sums of money are spent subsidising European farmers to produce food that we neither need nor want, or to 'set aside' land to grow a good crop of weeds. More money is spent stockpiling that unwanted food in huge warehouses. Wouldn't it be nice if they spent that money on subsidising farmers to convert to an organic system. We'd be healthier, the environment would be healthier, farm animals would have a decent life, and farmers could be proud of the job they're doing.
Get a life. Our friends have just had their entire vineyard wiped by hail. What's difference does a few animal sores make? And yes, hail happens here every few weeks. In summer you just have to be lucky or unlucky as the case may be
Anand Narayanan, India/ USA
Farmers throughout Britain have been hit very hard these past few years. Isn't it about time we stopped trying to lay blame and did something to help?
(Incidentally in response to some of the comments from people outside the UK. Just think how you'd feel if it was your livestock industry being devastated by this crisis, and people from other countries were making derogatory and completely unhelpful comments to you).
Not only should the blame for the potentially disastrous foot and mouth epidemic be placed on intensive large farm agriculture but equally blame needs to be placed on free trade in agricultural products before even larger disasters are allowed to occur on a global scale.
There are concerns that travellers coming to New Zealand may bring Foot-and-mouth with them, but this disease has been prevalent in SE Asia, closer to home for us, for a long time. We have always had strong border measures as a result.
However, should this virus reach our shores, it would decimate the economy almost totally, and therefore there is a lot of media attention to the crises in Britain and Europe right now. New Zealands' economy is so reliant on agriculture that the hearts of most Kiwis are with farmers in the UK.
I think the transportation of live animals across Europe is to be blamed for these diseases. If only the animals were slaughtered at source and the carcasses driven across Europe then the exposure of other herds would be kept to a minimum. I just hope that people will stop blaming the farmers - like they'd intentionally start something that affects their livelihood. Society has itself to blame. This, I think, is a direct result of us forever wanting to pay less for more in the shops.
In New Zealand we have times of risk to agricultural industries too. The most common is fire. When conditions become designated an 'extreme risk', then all forests are closed to vehicles and walkers until the situation improves. This includes both state forests and privately owned ones. I think it should be possible for something similar to happen in the British countryside to help limit the spread of F&M. Walkers and motorists should not have their freedom to pursue leisure and business interests at the expense of animal health and farm incomes.
It seems that Europe, and especially Britain, seems to lurch from one food scare to another - F&M, BSE, genetically modified foods, salmonella in chicken and so on and so on. Why? There is a country at the bottom of the world, famous for the size of its sheep population that has had none of these problems. Why? Good infrastructure and strict controls and standards. You need to implement similar and only import from countries with such controls. I was amazed to see that you import meat from Thailand, South Africa etc, when New Zealand could feed the whole of Britain.
Vaccines against FMD exist.
Their use was abandoned in Germany several years ago, because it was
"too expensive". Now tens of thousands of animals are slaughtered
because of a disease which could be prevented. I challenge farmers to accept that they have the responsibilities for their animals!
I am a veterinary student at the University of Bristol and have been affected by Foot-and-mouth like many other people. This disease is a virus, no farms have been accused of animal cruelty so why are so many people blaming the farmers?
Adam L, Essex
Recently a technical commission from Canada and the USA came to inspect our farms, meat industry etc and the brief ban imposed by those countries (because of fear of BSE) has been lifted. So, please think twice before spreading any kind of prejudice towards countries like ours.
Being brought up on a farm, I have seen many changes. We used to be able to afford to run our own lorry, but now it is cheaper to get a haulage firm in. Also all our meat could be slaughtered at the local butchers, as it was hundreds of years ago. This was stopped by "townies" moving out here who disliked the "smell". The other local abattoir closed due to Government rules that I'm sure Europe does not abide by. Cheap meat imports make it impossible for the small farmer to survive. The only ones who can are dealers and large farms. We are very worried for the immediate future and feel deeply for those unfortunate enough to have contracted it.
Why do British farmers receive twice as much as Australian farmers for their beef and still whine about high costs and low profits? And what about all the government subsidies that UK farmers receive? Maybe this is a sign for British farmers to give up and leave it to the people who can produce good quality product at a sensible price? (We pay about a quarter the price you do for a "real" steak!)
Being a farmer, this Foot-and-mouth is very distressing for future generations. The Government needs to sort this mess out and quickly or there will be lots more problems to come.
Don't blame the farmers, it has been governments and the EU who have been encouraging intensive farming since the war so that people do not go short. Farmers are only doing what they are told. If you were offered subsidies would you say no? After all, what more important job is there than providing food for YOU to eat?
Here we go again! Let's all blame a 'cheap food' policy for our problems. The European Union does not, and has never had, a cheap food policy. It has an expensive food policy, where consumers pay significantly more than they do in other comparable countries (Canada, Australia) for food, and where farmers are encouraged to produce more than economic and social common sense would suggest.
If we really want to help farmers, we should abandon the Common Agricultural Policy, and let consumers decide for themselves; and support the countryside and environment through direct payments and not through food prices.
Am I the only one thinking about the Iraqi threat of 'retaliation' against Britain for the recent air strikes? It's strongly rumoured that they've been developing pathogens: could this not be a perfect example of bio-terrorism, crippling the country's economy?
Interestingly enough, a news item caught my attention tonight: 20% of Hong Kong pig farms have pigs infected with foot-and-mouth disease. Local officials say this is quite common during the winter months. No one here seems to care: the countryside is still open; pork is still on sale in the shops. Are UK Government officials overreacting to this disease, or are Hong Kong officials being complacent?
When Britons are winning, you are Britons. When you are losing, you are Europeans. Nice.
I am wondering what your commentary would have been like if the Italians or the French had been the cause of a disease that threatens to wipe out livestock in Europe.
I suggest a moat at the English Channel.
Finally, a subject that cannot be blamed on America... yet.
Unlike many of your writers who would like to use a natural disaster such as this to try and indicate that someone somewhere is leading a polluting and self-centred lifestyle, it would perhaps be better to look at this less as a vindictive act visited upon us but recognise that this is a simple part of nature.
Regardless of how we treat or how much we transport livestock, this is going to happen in cycles forever - as long as there are animals in which it can live, the virus will return to visit. If anything, this should perhaps encourage us to start making wider use of vaccines in all animals. No-one is to blame for this crisis, it was going to happen anyway.
Why is everyone so keen to look for blame? The most important thing at the moment is to eradicate the disease and get things back to normal. Farmers tend to be very proud people and do not like to hold their hand out for money but they have no alternative as their industry has been driven into the ground by the supermarkets demanding higher welfare standards and thus a higher cost of production whilst paying the farmers less for their goods.
Farmers are happy to produce high quality food but they should be paid accordingly. They should also be competing on a level playing field with the rest of the world where there are lower standards and heavily subsidised farmers.
UK Animal Feed Manufacturers operate to stringent quality assurance standards verified by independent audit. The feeding of unprocessed food waste 'swill', particularly from airports, makes a mockery of the entire agricultural industry. Why was this obvious loophole not stopped before now! The UK must adopt the same stringent standards as the US and Australia if we are to maintain a credible Clean food industry. The relaxation of custom controls at our ports leaves us open to cross contamination of all kinds.
It is the fault of various groups, including consumers, farmers, supermarkets and the government. The whole outbreak would most probably have been prevented if we stopped shipping live animals out of and into Britain. When I go to the supermarket or butcher to buy meat, it could come from any country but still be labelled as being Scottish, although it may only have been in the country for 90 days. What I want to see in the supermarket is something labelled as being bred and reared in Scotland, and preferably within a 50 mile radius (where practicable) of the shop it's bought in.
If intensive farming methods alone are to blame, how come the last serious outbreak was all of 34 years ago?
Questions are beginning to be asked by farmers, public and media about potential uses of FMD vaccine.
A good starting point is that FMD vaccination is not legally permitted. Supplies of vaccines against most of the 80 or so strains are held at Pirbright and elsewhere, but for emergency EU approved use only. Vaccine has never been used in the UK.
Such approval could only be granted in the case of a member state presenting a justification to the Standing Veterinary Committee
It would be fruitless at this stage to speculate on what such justifications might be, but I suggest that the current disease spread pattern in Britain is too diffuse to warrant any consideration of vaccination here.
Vaccines are not 100% effective, and although they are purer now than they ever have been the possibility of breakdown leading to disease is always there. It is probable that the better the 'shedder'of infectivity an animal is (pig in particular) the greater the risk. Also - provided the vaccine works - vaccinated animals will create antibodies in their system, which will be present and detectable for maybe 18 months. Thus disease free status is lost, and the export trade is affected.
I think if the decision was ever made to use ring vaccination, then logically the decision to slaughter the vaccinated animals after the outbreak was over would follow. It is not possible to distinguish between the antibody response of a naturally immune animal - one that has been exposed to disease - and a vaccinated one.
We are constantly told that British animals are looked after better than in 'most' countries, so why import animals/meat from those with lesser standards? Is this because the EU operates a 'one size fits all' system where we accept the lowest standard? 50 % of the EU budget is spent on agriculture and it is still a shambles.
When I visited the USA a few years I was stopped by customs after a sniffer dog alerted them of my bag. The dog had smelt an apple in it, which had to be discarded. This country can't even spot bombs, people and cases of illegal drugs coming in. Our border controls need to be much tighter to avoid diseases like FMD .
If it is true that meat can be imported from places such as Thailand and still labelled as British produce, how can people like myself, who try to buy British as much as possible, ensure that we are in fact buying what we think we are?
Why doesn't the NFU live up to some of its responsibilities? Instead of just being a pressure group, they should carry out some of the responsibilities of a Union or Trade Organisation and help to impose and maintain Standards.
It's a pity that the current crisis didn't coincide with the petrol crisis. Then no-one would have had the opportunity to move around the country to spread the disease.
Those who criticize farmers may have a point about over-intensivity; those who criticize government may have a point about the loss of small abattoirs (the costs incurred by implementing welfare and hygiene regulations should have been met by government as, I believe, happens in other EU countries); those who criticize livestock dealers may have a point too - even the NFU spokesman on Radio 4's Farming programme some days ago said that the increased movement of livestock around the country from market to market should be looked into. But why does anyone suppose there is over-intensivity, a leaning towards bigger is better and an apparent 'greed' by farmers and/or dealers who try and get a better price? To state the obvious (to me at any rate) it is because Jo Public have demanded cheap food and we vote with our feet in favour of this by flocking to supermarkets who claim to be 'driving down prices'. Do you really want to be at the mercy of huge global companies who increasingly try to manipulate the production of essential foodstuffs on which your very existence depends? Ignorance is one thing and can almost be excused, indifference is another and can't!
Has the veterinary service been letting down the farmers? Why havn't all these animals been immunised for foot and mouth and for swine fever?
Yes, it is a shame that farmers are
again affected by huge loss of
income but maybe it is time we
started thinking about alternative
ways of farming. Is it really
necessary or healthy to eat so much
meat? I am not vegetarian but eat
very little meat, once a week if that.
There are plenty of other food
sources which give necessary
nutrients which also work out
cheaper. There are many reasons
supporting the reduction of meat
production, it takes up so much land,
feeding cattle and other farm
animals uses vast amounts of
grain that could be used in
better ways and the methane that
is produced by cattle is extremely
bad for the environment. Exporting
live animals is inhumane and cannot
do anything positive for the quality of
meat. When is it going to be realised
that the public cannot continue to
subsidise the farming industry when
so much seems to be going
My wife and I run a tourist based business in Cumbria. Originally with farming roots we have enormous sympathy for the farming community. However we should not lose sight of the effect this crisis will have on the wider economy. The fuel crisis in September led to a massive drop in visitors during that month and October with our sales being down by 70%. The poor winter weather has had a similar effect. The foot and mouth crisis is understandably leading to restricted access to the countryside but the effect on our business is potentially enormous. If the crisis continues into the Easter period the consequences on the wider, certainly tourist-based economies of the country could be devastating.
So, if the farmers aren't to blame - who is? It strikes me that whenever there's an agricultural crisis farmers are always the last to accept responsibility and are very quick to look for compensation and help at the same time as trying to blame others (usually the Government). Funny that.
We are all doing something wrong
in the way we produce and consume meat
and dairy products. BSE, FMD, EColi, swine
fever, salmonella - how many more outbreaks does it take before we realise that the system is flawed and a new way of doing things must be found? I have no idea
what that solution is, but I do know that it has to involve everyone at all levels - farmers, consumers, hauliers, supermarkets and politicians. Time for some serious, considered fresh thinking.
26 Feb 01 | UK
Fires burn but disease spreads
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