Over the past weeks the news has been dominated by the story of yet another crisis in farming. Appalling pictures of funeral pyres of animal victims of the foot and mouth outbreak have even made the front page of stateside-based 'Time' magazine. What the hell is going on?
What is going on is capitalism as usual on the farm. 'Townies' can be a bit schizophrenic in their attitude to farmers. On the one hand you hear about farmers driving around in Range Rovers paid for out of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy subsidies. Then you read the horror stories about smallholders who are only getting paid £1 for a sheep. Which is true?
They're both right. On the one hand farming is one the most cosseted sectors in the so-called free market system. Brussels bureaucrats dished out £23 billion in subsidies last year - £3 billion in Britain, where there are just 168,000 farms. That was just European Union largesse. BSE cost us, the taxpayer, over £600 million in compensation. It seems the BSE outbreak was a health and financial crisis for the rest of us, not for beef farmers! So if someone suggests that occasional disease is a cost of the cheap food the farmers are providing through intensive agriculture, don't forget you're paying for food twice - once at the checkout and a second time through tax deductions from your pay packet.
Farmers should be in clover. But actually it's the richest 20% of farmers who get 80% of the subsidies from the public purse. And it is true, despite the whining from rich farmers that we hear all the time, that farming is at present in crisis. A supermarket pays 17p for a litre of milk. But it costs the dairy farmer 22p to produce. And sheep do sell for as low as £1. The majority of farmers are struggling. And tens of thousands have left the industry. Ten years ago there were 233,000 farms. Now only 168,000 are left. 70% of these farms only provide a livelihood for one person. At the same time there are 4,000 acre prairies worked by £150,000 tractors directed by satellite navigation. Farming is big business, with the little people going to the wall as the big firms flourish. And that's where foot and mouth comes in.
The initial reaction of consumers (and that's all of us) to the news of the outbreak is along the lines of, 'Oh no, the food industry is poisoning us again'. And that's not true. No human can suffer the effects of foot and mouth. And the disease is not fatal to the vast majority of farm animals. It's the animal equivalent of flu. At worst, if the disease were left to run its course, about 5% of the youngest, oldest and weakest creatures would perish. The rest would suffer discomfort for about the same length of time we suffer from flu, and then recover. So what's the problem?
The problem is money. The reason the farm industry has poisoned our food so often in the past has always been for money. The good news: a cow now yields 5,800 litres of milk a year compared with 4,000 litres twenty years ago. The bad news: we infected our herds with mad cow disease to get that result, and the disease jumped from that species through the food chain to kill humans horribly. To get milk yields up it was necessary to put a little protein in the cattle's diet. To add protein it was necessary to turn them into cannibals by feeding them with dead sheep and cows. What the present outbreak has in common with past contagions is that it is 'an economic disease', as some commentators have noted. In the main it hurts the big farmers who are responsible for the lion's share of the £1.2 billion of meat and livestock exported every year.
One of the symptoms of foot and mouth is loss of appetite. And meat animals are treated by capitalist intensive farming as eating machines until it is time to go to slaughter. For instance it takes 5 months to get a piglet ready for market. A further delay of a month or so makes pig breeding uneconomic. As Ian Campbell of the National Pig Association puts it, "(Waiting) would severely damage the economics of it."
The mass slaughter is being conducted for one reason - because it is the most profitable course of action. As Matthew Fort says (Observer March 11), "Commercial operations, of which farming are one, are designed to make a profit. You can no more expect them to put social consequences above that need for profit than you can expect a great white shark to become a vegetarian."
Most of us, including most meat eaters, are horrified at the scenes of unnecessary slaughter from the country. Who is taking these decisions on our behalf? For the farming industry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food there is no alternative. The farmers are represented in the corridors of power by the National Farmers' Union. In fact the NFU pushes the interests of the big agribusinesses. The MAFF, in turn, is supposed to represent our interests to the farm industry. In fact for decades the Ministry has misrepresented the interests of agrarian capitalism to the rest of us, and has not hesitated to cover up the fatal consequences of cost-cutting, right up to the last moment. They led the whispering campaign against Richard Lacey, the microbiologist. who predicted in 1988 that humans could catch CJD from eating beef infected with BSE.
There are alternatives to shooting the animals and burning the bodies. The first one is to let the disease run its course. We don't actually know when the virus first started to cause outbreaks. Before the twentieth century, the only option for farmers was to put up with the loss of output. The problem is that foot and mouth is quite incredibly infectious. It can be borne on the wind for quite a distance, so it is likely that the entire population of farm animals in the country would go down with it. Capitalist farmers affect to find this insupportable. In fact all they have to do is sit tight and wait for the compensation.
The second alternative is vaccination. Again there is no technical problem. The form of foot and mouth we are confronting (type 'O') has a well-developed and effective vaccine available. There are millions of shots of it stored in the European Union for use. But it's expensive. Farmers have to pay for the vaccine. But if animals are slaughtered, we the taxpayer foot the bill for compensation. As the President of the British Veterinary Association comments, "You're balancing costs with benefits." In other words it's all about money again.
The other problem about vaccination is 'the British'. That's not you and me, of course. We never get consulted about matters of food safety and animal welfare. But the big farmers in the NFU lobbied the MAFF and the MAFF lobbied the European Commission. The French, Germans and some other governments were all in favour of a policy of mass vaccination against foot and mouth. The European Commission was persuaded by the British farm interest that vaccination showed there were still traces of the disease in a country. And if you have traces of the disease in your country, you shouldn't be allowed to export into the single market. This is a never-never land argument! It means that the only policy left to an exporting nation is mass slaughter. In 1967, during the last major outbreak, 400,000 animals were destroyed. And there will be further losses for hard-pressed farmers. We are entering the lambing season. Ewes have to be brought indoors to give birth. But in quarantined areas they can't be moved. "This morning at 5am., farmer Meirion Lloyd will have trekked four miles to pick his dead lambs out of pools of blood in the mud. Some might be hanging stillborn from their mothers. Others will have died from cold and starvation. Rain will be pounding their field in north Wales."(The Guardian, 10th March) These sheep are unaffected by foot and mouth.
In any case why are animals shipped such long distances? It causes stress to the creatures and harms the quality of the meat. Again the reason is the scams and quirks of food as a capitalist business. Most meat customers are prepared to pay over the odds for home produced meat. Now the requirements for acquiring a new nationality for farm animals would make the Hindujas envious. Two weeks' residence in France makes a sheep a French sheep! This concession was made because of the lobbying of the 'British' (the MAFF and the big farmers) who have spearheaded the drive for deregulation and neoliberalism in the European Union. So sheep reared in Britain are taken on long traumatic journeys to France or other continental countries. Once they've acquired French nationality, any attempt by the sheep to explore their new Gallic identity is cut short by a bolt in the head.
The European Union has regulations on traceability. We need to know where meat has come from. With all these food scares, quite right too. In effect livestock travelling across borders should carry a passport. These regulations were opposed by the 'British' (you know who) on the grounds that this was the nanny state shackling the animal spirits of entrepreneurs - in other words the right of rich farmers to poison us. The European Commission started taking action against the UK to enforce traceability two years ago. They were brusquely ignored by a Labour administration that grovels to capitalism
One reason why livestock are transported long distances within Britain is because many of the small local abattoirs have closed their doors. The slaughtering industry is going the way of the rest of the food industry - the big firms engulf the little ones. The original outbreak of foot and mouth seems to have been in Heddon-on-the-wall, outside Newcastle. This farm was a revolting slum with rotting pig carcasses lying in the pigpens with the live animals. It should have been closed down on health and safety grounds long ago. It was linked to a slaughterhouse in Essex, hundreds of miles away. Pigs from the farm were sold at a market in Carlisle to a farmer from Dartmoor - again hundreds of miles distant. This operator is described as a farmer, but he seems to be a dealer or speculator in livestock - prepared to drive all over the country in search of a bargain. Of course what all this travelling does is to immediately amplify any localised outbreak into a national disaster. If we still had the local abattoirs any local infection could be contained. 'Globalisation' in the food industry means we import beef from Namibia while exporting home produce all over the world. Naturally to be shipped such distances the meat must be treated with chemicals and processed. And imported meat can spread the disease. Southern Africa has seen outbreaks of type 'O' foot and mouth recently.
This is not really a farming crisis. It is a crisis of the countryside. Most people who live in the countryside are not farmers. John Major can forget his fantasy about 'old maids cycling to holy communion through the early morning mist.' Country dwellers in affected areas are effectively under house arrest. They can't even go to church! Rural schools have been closed because of the epidemic. Normal everyday life in the country areas has ground to a standstill.
Farmers don't own the countryside. It belongs to all of us. Millions of city dwellers use the countryside every weekend for recreation - walking, cycling, riding, sports and sightseeing. Farmers are just custodians of the countryside. And their industry has sealed it off from us. Rural tourism is reckoned to be a £1.2 billion industry. So far the hotel owners, bed and breakfast accommodation, tea shoppes and country pubs have been haemorrhaging £100 million a week. This compares with the £30 million lost to the farmers. The streetwise commercial farmers already have their hands outstretched for compensation. But the tourism industry will never get that money back. Country tourism actually provides five times as many jobs as farming. And as we come up to the crucial Easter and May bank holiday weekends, it looks as though the country will still be closed for business. The owner of the Wasdale Head Inn works it all out. He's lost £26,000 so far because there are 600 sheep in the valley worth £30 each. "At local market prices...I could have bought every single beast in the valley and have money to spare for a great night out. I could buy all the sheep, slaughter them, let the walkers and climbers back in and remain open for business - it would make more sense." This is the logic of the policy carried out by Nick Brown at the behest of the big farmers. This is the logic of capitalism!
Country dwellers have all sorts of problems which have been compounded by the present crisis. Rural Post Offices are going to the wall. The Post Office is a publicly owned business. It ought to be publicly accountable. But its managers have been instructed to maximise profits, and minimise costs, just like a private firm. The other hub of village life apart from the shop/post office is likely to be the pub. Four or five country pubs a week cease trading. Usually they are turned into upmarket housing. The influx of commuters and affluent retired people into villages drives up house prices beyond the reach of many who were born there. And Labour has failed to deliver on its manifesto pledge to save country bus routes, a lifeline for those who can't afford a car.
Farmers are just one link in the food chain. Compared with the supermarket chains, they are small fry. So the supermarkets, through their buying power, have farmers by the short hairs. Fifty years ago farmers got 50-60% of the price of food returned to them as revenue. Now it's only 9p in the pound. Last year the Competition Commission took a look at supermarkets. It wasn't easy. Their suppliers would only give evidence if they were granted anonymity. The Commission spoke of 'a climate of apprehension'. 'Fear' would be a better word. They had such leverage over small farmers that 'a request amounted to the same thing as a requirement.' In particular the big chains made 'requests for retrospective discounts'. They were demanding money with menaces! It's true that Tony Blair recently had a pop at the supermarkets for the food crisis. But with the likes of Lord Sainsbury in the government, they've had an easy ride since 1997.
The farmers respond to the pressure from supermarkets in the only way they know: by relentless cost-cutting. This is inevitably at the expense of animal welfare and our food health. A broiler chicken reared for sale in a supermarket lives out its life in a space the size of a sheet of A4 paper (the size of the front cover of the Socialist Appeal journal!). No wonder 'Which', the journal of the Consumer's Association, found 22% of poultry were riddled with infections. We have paid a very high price for these economies in the food industry. But the firms who cut the corners are not the people who pay the bills in terms of disease and all the other social costs. The Irish, the French and Germans too are understandably furious as they are forced to slaughter thousands of imported livestock because the 'dirty man of Europe' has yet again failed to exercise any minimum of control over the drive for profit in the food industry. They will have to pay the price. Britain remains a country where capital is king and where the civil service is imbued with a Thatcherite, neoliberal attitude of indifference to the public welfare. This after four years of a Labour government!
What the crisis shows is the conflict between the profit motive and the wider social interest. It is easy to blame farmers, but they are just a cog in the money-making machine. We cannot go on like this! We need a fundamental rethink of our food industry. Individual farmers can't change things. They're cutting corners because they have no alternative. They are responding to market forces. Market forces are not an expression of what people want. We don't 'vote' with our money to be poisoned. Market forces are the way the rule of profit imposes itself on us. We can have healthy nutritious food from animals reared in humane conditions. Or we can have a capitalist food industry. We can't have both.