Page last updated at 19:41 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Whitehall turf war saves cows' hides

By James Landale
Deputy political editor, BBC News

Forget the Thick of It. The truth of what goes on in Westminster is always better than fiction.

Cows were to be sacrificed on the altars of environmentalism and fitness

Let me tell you the story of a classic Whitehall farce, a tale of how the government came within a whisker of advocating bovine genocide.

It all began when officials at the Department of Health decided to part-fund a piece of independent research looking at how health professionals could help combat the effects of climate change.

The scientists came up with a rather courageous idea. Why not kill 30% of Britain's cows and sheep?

Not only would this help save the environment; it would also make us healthier.

The theory goes like this: if you have less ruminant livestock, you emit less climate-damaging methane into the atmosphere.

You also have less meat to eat, which means less saturated fat in our diets and thus less heart disease.

Policy on the hoof?

Officials liked the wheeze so much they decided Health Secretary Andy Burnham should give a speech at the launch of the report by the Lancet medical journal.

There Mr Burnham congratulated the Lancet on its "timely report".

The Department of Health put out a handy press release summarising the report's conclusions.

It even rang up the Department of Energy and Climate Change and got it involved.

A useful quote from Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband was included on the press release.

Andy Burnham
Andy Burnham was forced to assert his carnivorous credentials

Not to be outdone, a quote from international development minister Mike Foster was produced. All agreed that health and climate change could be two sides of the same coin.

There was only one problem: no one had bothered to tell the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and, as its name suggests, it is in charge of cows.

Defra officials gently pointed out that perhaps the "kill-a-cow, save-the-world" policy might have a few flaws.

First, the farming community would be a tad unhappy. And sure enough the National Farmers' Union was apoplectic, raging at the "ill-informed and simplistic report", condemning ministers for their "poor judgement".

Second, cutting livestock in this country will not mean people eat less meat.

We will just import more from places like Brazil and Argentina, who will cut down more rainforest to satisfy this lucrative extra demand from Europe.

Third, how exactly was the government going to go about culling 30% of Britain's ruminant livestock?

Not surprisingly the media began asking questions. Was Andy Burnham really advocating killing cows?

For the Conservatives, shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert said that "careless demands like this don't just undermine farming, they erode public support for action on climate change".

Moo-ving on

As the penny slowly dropped, the screech of brakes could heard across Whitehall.

The Department of Health press office rang to make clear that Mr Burnham was not endorsing the Lancet report.

Nothing he had said could be read as endorsing it. It was not government policy to cut Britain's livestock.

Other officials rang to emphasise that Mr Burnham was a meat-eater and not a vegetarian.

Perhaps, it was suggested, the press office had mistakenly elided the two events. The climate change department rang to make the same points.

In the meantime, Defra acted to calm worried farmers.

A senior official sent out an email telling them not to worry about the Lancet report: "This, as we know, rather over-simplifies a complex issue and I don't think that Andy Burnham has actually said anything that supports the headline that govt supports a 30% reduction in farm animals."

So, at the end of the day, there was no story. The government did not take on the farmers.

Another report gathered dust on Whitehall's shelves. No cows died on the altar of climate change.

What we learned, though, is that the left hand of this government does not always know what the right hand is doing.

And, when it comes to turf wars, Defra can occasionally punch its weight.

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