Farmers, Townies, Foot and Mouth and The Countryside Alliance
In the post-war years, with the aid of financial incentives, the government urged farmers to produce more home-grown food and the farmers responded well to the benefit of the nation and to themselves. Then came the EEC and the Common Agricultural Policy with its generous subsidies and grants. There were grants for tractors and other equipment, mostly aimed at improving the output per man and there were guaranteed prices. Farming became an attractive business. Whilst the overall aim of the subsidies was to produce good quality food at low prices, it could be argued that they have stood in the way of modern methods that would produce cheap food.
Now, however, we have to have some sympathy for the farmers. The foot and mouth catastrophe, coming on top of the BSE catastrophe, threatens to all but destroy livestock farming and recent trade agreements that have led to a reduction in produce prices combined with the wettest year on record has hit the previously stable arable farming, such that those with mixed farms have been less able to rely on the arable side to offset their livestock losses.
In recent years the great British public has expressed its concern over animal welfare and called for legislation to ease the suffering of farm animals. Most farmers have welcomed this move and have co-operated in ensuring better conditions, despite the resulting increase in their operating costs. Perversely, the great British public then goes and buys cheaper imported meat without a thought for the conditions in which those animals were reared. Even those who do wish to buy home produced food are often frustrated by the labelling which permits the phrase "Produced in the UK" to be used on food which has been processed in the UK but was originally imported. "Processed" can mean little more than sprinkling with herbs. Furthermore, I am given to understand that section 17 of the 1988 Local Gov't Act effectively requires Local Authorities to buy at the most competitive prices, which means that they too must buy cheap imported meat to feed to our children in school dinners. It all seems a bit of a mess and it is easy to understand why farmers are feeling depressed and let down.
Clearly there is a need for some reorganisation after the present dust has settled and farmers must be involved more in any reorganisation, we do not want more regulations concocted by civil servants in their ivory towers in Whitehall and Brussels. We, the public, have to recognise that we need farmers and they have to realise that they need us as consumers. We must get away from the antipathy that seems to have characterised the relationship between 'townies' and 'country folk' in recent times. We want good wholesome food, and most farmers are keen to be given the opportunity to produce it. We need to recognise that it is worth paying a little more and, most importantly, we need clear labelling of the food that we buy.
Understandably the foot-and-mouth epidemic and the problems of the countryside have dominated the news for weeks on end. Although, at the time of writing, we do not even know if the outbreak is under control, we are beginning to see the enormous cost of the outbreak. Estimates vary, but something of the order of a £3bn charge to the taxpayers directly has been suggested and the indirect cost resulting from lost income to so many businesses connected with farming and tourism can be so great as to bring about a downturn in the national economy. It is such a serious matter yet, to my mind, there remains a number of unanswered questions, for example:
Why are we willing to import meat from countries where foot-and-mouth is endemic whilst we are so concerned at maintaining our disease free status?
Why do farmers not insure themselves against their animals contracting the disease? All other industries have to carry their own insurance against possible disasters. The relatively low frequency with which outbreaks occur and the relatively small proportion of livestock usually involved (the total livestock population is estimated at 59million) must make insurance a viable proposition. If insurance is not viable the implication is that the risk outweighs the benefits i.e. livestock farming itself is not viable.
The use of vaccines in the human population has led to the defeat of many diseases and the complete eradication of some. Is it not possible to adopt a similar approach to animal diseases in general and this disease in particular? There have been major outbreaks of foot and mouth in the past, in 1967 there were 2,397 cases, an outbreak in the 1920's took almost two years to eradicate and in 1883-1886 there were 18,732 cases. Without a programme of vaccination there will, no doubt, be major outbreaks again.
Since tourism is apparently much more important economically than farming and since meat exports represent a small proportion of farming, would it not be preferable to vaccinate our animals even if that would mean losing a proportion of our meat export trade?
If vaccination is not a practical option would it not be preferable to abandon our attempt to maintain a disease free status? Can we afford a catastrophe of this magnitude on a regular basis?
With, it seems, so much meat imported what is the overall balance? It seems somewhat crazy that so much meat passes at our ports going in opposite directions.
It is said that the current outbreak of F&M arose in pigs due to the use of pig swill. A number of outbreaks last century were similarly attributed to pig swill. Now, I believe, the Government has banned its use. If it was known to carry such a risk why did farmers carry on using it? They should not have waited for it to be banned.
For anyone to lose their livelihood is a terrible tragedy but I am not sure why it is that it should be regarded as more of a tragedy for a farmer to lose his work than it was for steelworkers, shipbuilders, miners et al. Truth is, when this epidemic is over, most farmers that have suffered losses will be compensated and will be back at their work, not so for the others.
When there are so many problems facing farmers and rural businesses why has the Countryside Alliance devoted so much of its efforts and time to opposing the proposed ban on fox hunting? The rural economy is not dependent upon the maintenance of hunting with hounds. The ban is supported by the majority of the public and the belligerent attitude of the pro-hunting lobby only succeeds in alienating the majority and reducing sympathy for the real difficulties. It seems as though the Countryside Alliance has been hijacked by the pro-hunting lobby and they are driving a wedge between town and country.