Britain - Behind the foot and mouth outbreak, the farming crisis

Feb/Mar 2001

Coming hard on the heels of an epidemic of swine fever and the BSE disaster, the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain could spell catastrophe for many small and medium sized farms. The wholesale slaughter of pigs, sheep and cattle, across the country is likely to mean bankruptcy for a number of smaller farmers who rely solely on this livestock for their incomes - and regardless of the "compensation" that Blair told them they would be given for each animal which is incinerated.

The media has relayed the scenes of thousands of animals piled high on flaming pyres, sacrificed to a commercial policy which takes no account of the incredible waste of animals and the resources expended on raising them. And if newspapers devoted pages and pages of copy on a daily basis to detail the disaster, it reflected not only its impact on the farmers concerned, but also the political importance of this crisis for the government, coming as it does, just after the devastation of BSE.

Yet despite the real, very serious, implications of this outbreak, there is reason to believe that some of the main players involved - the politicians of all stripes, farmers' organisations and of course the media - have been consciously overplaying their parts. After all, there are high stakes involved for each of them.

Behind Nick Brown's heroics

To start with, one can certainly be suspicious about the government's motives in ensuring that this outbreak of livestock disease would have as high a profile as possible. What was declared was tantamount to a state of national emergency, with wide-ranging measures affecting not only the countryside but with a knock-on effect which even stopped national events which had nothing to do with preventing foot and mouth disease from spreading.

A first government announcement, on the 23 February, straight after the discovery at Cheale Abattoir in Essex of a pig with blisters on its feet and snout, made the movement of farm animals anywhere in the country a criminal offence. Wide exclusion zones were set up around identified sources of infection. Then the slaughter and incineration of farm animals began - with 54,000 farm animals (to date) burnt at different sites up and down the country. Rural Britain was soaked in disinfectant. A number of farms were quarantined so that nobody could move on or off them. The countryside was declared out of bounds for walkers and tourists and paths and rights of way were blocked whether on or off farmland. Forests were declared no-go areas and National Parks closed.

After protesting initially that £200m European Union compensation would not be available, Brown announced a compensation scheme for farmers for each animal burnt and asked Europe to cough up. But no compensation was announced at this stage, for loss of income due to the restrictions on livestock movements.

On the face of it, however, it seemed that the government was doing its job with due diligence, at least if its measures were really as necessary and efficient as it claimed. But were they?

Given the fact that the first diagnosis of foot and mouth disease took place in an abattoir in Essex, in pigs which had been transported over 300 miles from Northumberland, it must have been the case, at the time of diagnosis, that this disease was already out and about. Indeed, the foot and mouth virus is known to survive and spread in moisture rich, cool winds. What is more, most experts agree that the current practice of transporting large numbers of livestock over long distances around the country (between abattoirs or dealers' markets) makes the spread of a highly contagious disease such as foot and mouth, once it has broken out, almost inevitable.

In other words, the containment measures which were put in place were already too late to be effective. They amounted to shutting the sty gate after the pig had gone. And this was proven when it transpired that the disease had already spread from its assumed origin in the North-east, across the country to the North- west and all the way south to Devonshire - and indeed to the rest of the UK, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless the government stuck to these drastic measures - the same ones instituted in 1967 when the last big epidemic of foot and mouth occurred and when 440,000 farm animals were burnt. In fact it made them even more stringent. Yet in 1967, animals were not moved such long distances to slaughterhouses and neither was livestock farming quite as intensive and concentrated. So, while the cordoning off of the infected areas and immobilisation of animals on their farms was likely to be effective in 1967 - it worked up to a point - this was not so likely to be the case today.

But fortunately, in a way, for Blair and Nick Brown, who could not be seen to "weaken" in front of this crisis, there was such pressure from those farmers not eligible for compensation (who were losing income because they could not move their livestock), that they were provided with a good reason to lift restrictions which were largely useless anyway. And they could appear to be responding to farmers' needs rather than changing tack.

So local authorities were given the right to issue licences from the 5 March onwards for some limited animal transport and to undertake the provision of inspection, testing and disinfecting facilities as well as providing the personnel required.

So what was going on behind the government's dramatic gestures? It is an open secret that Blair has been planning a Spring general election and that local elections were due to take place anyway this May. Up until the foot and mouth outbreak, it seemed that the effects of the BSE scandal were slowly dissipating, (as were the effects of the small farmers' and hauliers' fuel blockade) so that farmers' concerns were unlikely to be a big issue in the election.

But then foot and mouth struck, posing an immediate dilemma. Blair and his Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, had to be seen to be making heroic efforts to limit further damage to the farming industry (and those industries connected to it) if their credibility was to be preserved. And even if the estimated 360,000 full and part-time farmers themselves comprise a relatively insignificant part of the electorate, given the strong effect of "food matters" on the general public, this epidemic could have important electoral repercussions.

Of course, if the countryside was re-opened at least to some degree, even if the epidemic was not yet under control, the election date was less at risk. After the announcement that some restrictions were to be lifted, Blair wasted no time in launching some blatant electioneering, on the back of charred animal carcasses. Despite his close relationship with supermarket magnate David Sainsbury, he made a speech at an agricultural college near Gloucester in which he criticised supermarkets - and consumers - with the most shameless hypocrisy: "Supermarkets have a big role to play for that [the spread of foot and mouth] because they insist on having all their meat taken to one abattoir to be slaughtered".

Of course, he did not mention how many small and medium sized local abattoirs had been closed down since his own government came into office. Nor could he stop himself from blaming the public's desire for cheap food as being responsible for the supermarkets' "armlock" on farmers, as he called it.

The rise and fall of the abattoirs

Blair is of course not wrong to point to the concentration of the slaughtering of livestock since giant supermarkets came to dominate the food retailing sector. There are certainly fewer abattoirs today. In 1990, there were 1,400 abattoirs up and down the country and today there are only around 300. And it is the small, local abattoirs which have been forced to close down. 50% of all slaughtering performed in the country takes place in the largest 10%. But as will be seen, the supermarket monopoly is not entirely to blame for this. Successive governments made their own contribution.

Abattoirs used to be inspected by local authorities as part of their responsibility to inspect all food premises. It was rightly considered a matter of health protection and was fully funded by taxation. It is worth mentioning, however, that once farming subsidies ceased to be the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, veterinary officials were no longer sent to inspect hygiene and health of livestock on farms. And by the early 1980s, after the Thatcher government instituted swinging cuts in central government ministries, the testing of soil, animals and so on which used to be provided as a free service to farmers became subject to charges.

As for the inspection of abattoirs and meat cutting plants, due to cuts in funding, this became more and more haphazard. So by the time of the outbreak of BSE (the first case was in 1982 and the peak in infections occurred between 1984 and 1988) the disgusting and unhygienic state of Britain's abattoirs was becoming a central issue. In 1989, the government had ordered that brain and spinal cords should be prevented from entering the human food chain and removed in abattoirs. Yet in 1990, after John Gummer, the then Agriculture Minister, reported that 60% of abattoirs did not meet government hygiene standards, he said this would not raise concern over the effective removal of the banned offal! So nothing much was done to clean them up. As a result, a report drafted in December 1995, called "Red Meat", which the government suppressed, found that abattoirs were filthy and that carcasses prepared for human consumption were contaminated with animal faeces infected with E coli (a bacterium responsible for the food poisoning which killed 20 people in Scotland in 1997). It also pointed out that some 50% of slaughterhouses were failing to implement the proper removal of brain and spinal cord.

In April 1995, the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) had already been set up, as an agency of the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) to take over meat inspection in abattoirs and meat cutting plants on a national basis. But funding for an additional 450 inspectors and vets, required for increased inspections, did not become available until after March 1996 when the government finally was forced to admit that BSE could be passed on to humans. And it was really only after the EU had insisted on better controls in abattoirs, that any improvements were actually implemented. Even then, the MHS was expected to be "self-financing" and "cost effective". So the MHS began to levy charges on plants for inspections, based on the time spent in the plants and on travel costs of inspectors. This raised costs for the abattoir industry, already plagued, apparently, by overcapacity and low margins and suffering the closure of plants. But actually the growing BSE crisis ended up throwing it a temporary lifeline. Not only did it provide it with a huge amount of work in culling cattle, but the government paid abattoirs £87.50 per animal disposed of, an amount later cut to £41, but still substantial. So abattoirs actually received a bonanza out of BSE.

However the BSE "lesson" meant that the government was obliged to ensure that abattoirs were kept under supervision, with a view to increasing the presence of officials at abattoirs to full-time (although at present veterinary attendance is still around only 50% of operating time). This cost was meant to be born by the abattoirs, though the costs for Specified Risk Material (under BSE controls) were still paid for by the government.

After Labour came into government in 1997, the system of charging was reviewed, and by September 1998 a new system of charges to operate alongside the time-based charges was proposed. This was based on the number of animals or amount of meat which went through these plants. If the time-based cost was higher than the charge based on the amount of meat processed, then the cost to the plant would be the old time-based one. This benefited large abattoirs at the expense of smaller ones because the small abattoirs had many fewer animals going through their plants. Moreover, the increase in the presence of inspectors meant even higher charges. To give an example of what this meant for small abattoirs, one abattoir in Suffolk is cited as having seen its cost rising from £3,000 to £9,000 per year. Like many others, it closed down.

It is true that after strenuous lobbying by abattoirs and rural organisations, the government reviewed these charges and agreed one or two compromises, including that the charges should be based on whichever calculation was lower, rather than whichever was higher, as was the case before. However, this came far too late for most small abattoirs which had already gone out of business.

So today, the result is the concentration of slaughtering in a few large abattoirs and an average journey to the slaughter has been estimated at 100 miles, though some livestock, as was the case for the Northumberland pigs, have to travel even further, due to contractual arrangements with food processors and retailers.

Obviously, fewer abattoirs means that fewer inspectors are needed and that is more "cost-effective", after all. So the government has no real interest in seeing small abattoirs survive. As for the supermarkets, their huge requirements and lean operation mean that they choose the large abattoirs and centralise their meat processing to minimise costs and maximise profits.

They are still feeding pigs to pigs

There is something which is even more shocking about the current outbreak of foot and mouth - which exposes the total abrogation of responsibility on the part of the government, with regard to potential risk to the human food chain. And in the light of BSE this is nothing short of scandalous. We are told that it is likely that the source of the infection was infected pig swill (a mash of waste meat, cereals and vegetable matter which is meant to be heated to 100C, which would of course not kill BSE prions), possibly imported quite legally from a country which has endemic foot and mouth. Yes, pigs are still being fed on dead pig remains or the remains of other livestock - and theoretically, even organic matter from cows. Cows, which could indeed have contracted BSE from the huge amount of infected meat and bone meal exported from the UK to Third World countries and Eastern Europe after the 1988 ban on feeding it to cattle in the UK had come into force! So much for the Labour government's "Food Standards Agency", the new quango which was meant to prevent the possibility of a future BSE-type disaster! This agency claims it can only rely on the honesty of meat packers and distributors not to trade in contaminated meat, because quite simply, it does not devote the required human and laboratory resources to inspect or test consignments of animal feed or other agricultural products which come into the country - let alone those which circulate within the country.

But the government agency is not the target of the present tabloid-led campaign over the foot and mouth issue. Instead "foreign imports", in and of themselves, are now blamed for this outbreak, as well it seems, as for all the other ills which beset British farming today. The current epidemic of xenophobia seems to forget that it was this country's farms which incubated and exported BSE and this country's successive governments which stood by while meat and bone meal manufacturers exported infected animal feed all over the world after the danger was known.

The predictable price hike

Another significant aspect which began to emerge just one week into the foot and mouth crisis. The ban on movement of animals caused a shortage of meat at fresh meat markets such as London's Smithfields. Predictably, the price of meat began to climb. Pork and lamb prices went up by 40-50% within a week of the outbreak. And the price will no doubt climb even higher if many more animals are killed and burnt. As the meat retailers explain, they have "no option" but to pass the higher cost of importing meat on to the consumer...

But having now lifted the some of the restrictions for the movement of animals to slaughterhouses, in fact Blair and Brown could be delivering a bonus to those farmers not affected by the crisis which will probably go some way to compensating them for losses accrued due to the initial immobilisation of their animals. That is provided the meat buyers do not insist, as was threatened but immediately criticised, to pay less for British meat because of the stigma of foot and mouth.

What may be even more fortuitous for the meat marketers in Europe as a whole, is that the "beef mountain" which has grown because of the fear over BSE may well become marketable if this crisis carries on a bit longer.

In other words, there will actually be certain financial benefits as a result of this crisis, paid for by the consumer at the end of the day, of course. The immediate winners are the food retailers, processors and importers who can add on as much as they want to the price of meat for the time being. And the big losers are the small farmers who rely solely on one type of livestock to make ends meet, and unlike the large intensive farms cannot wait for compensation.

The supermarkets' "armlock"

Of course there is widespread condemnation of the role of the five supermarket giants in the food economy today - and so there should be. The criticism comes from every quarter, from farmers, from the organic "small is beautiful" movement, from greens and ecologists, from journalists and anti-globalisation protestors. And now also from Tony Blair. Whether they would all go so far as to blame supermarkets for the spread of foot and mouth is another question. However, the reasoning of many of these critics leaves a lot to be desired.

For instance, the switch to intensive commercial farming which took place gradually over the post-war period is blamed on the "consumer's desire for cheap food". In true Thatcherite logic, apparently the transformation of Britain from a nation of small farmers to a nation where agriculture has become an industry like any other, is "consumer", that is, "market" led. This idea flies in the face of fact.

Industrial farming - or rather capitalist farming - goes back a long way in Britain, to the days of the English revolution. At the time, its aim was to export to the continent by reducing production costs. Little has changed since. The big industrial farms do not exist as a result of "consumers' pressure" to have access to "cheap food", but of shareholders' pressure to get higher returns on their capital by cutting costs and increasing profit margins on the British market and abroad.

If, in addition, agricultural prices have fallen drastically over the past few years, it is not due to "consumers' pressure" either, but to a shortage of solvable consumers on the world market - particularly after the collapse of imports in Russia and South East Asia. But while farming products have been cheap as a result for retail giants, they have not been any cheaper for consumers. And though the real price of food is said to have fallen by 9% in Britain between 1989 and 1998, the cost of fresh produce - meat, vegetables and dairy products in supermarkets is higher than elsewhere in Europe and a lot higher than in the US. The "rip-off Britain" campaign by the Sunday Times Newspaper produced convincing enough evidence of this, for its own reasons, of course. This is because the food retailers would much rather pass their savings on to their shareholders than to the consumer. After all that is the logic of the profit system.

But for newspapers such as the Guardian, such logic is irrelevant. It along with a whole string of media figures have joined Prince Charles and the Soil Association in advocating a turn to smaller scale organic farming as the only sustainable alternative to what they refer to as the "cheap" food production of industrial farms.

Is small so beautiful then?

That the concentration and intensification of farming has brought with it a number of highly dubious practices - such as damage to the environment from nitrates, pesticides, herbicides etc., the use of cheap animal feeds, the use of antibiotics to prevent animals penned together from giving each other infections, thus creating resistant E coli strains etc., - all this is indisputable. However is the only alternative to go back to small scale farming, organic farms and high prices, protected from cheap foreign imports, as they propose?

A Guardian leader on 28 February went even further: "Now as never before , English animal husbandry needs to reinvent itself. As an industry it is, to put it bluntly, sick. Meat farmers do have a future, perhaps in smaller numbers, but more as conservers of land and less as exploiters. Practices will need to change the length of the food chain, from slaughtering to supermarket to dining room. Food prices will have to rise. In a nation where so many children are clinically obese, where diet and ill-health are all too closely associated and where cheap food is becoming increasingly shown to be unsafe to eat, that may be no bad thing."

So this newspaper editor wants food to be more expensive in order to wean 2 million children in Britain who live unhealthily below the poverty line off "unsafe" cheap food! It will be no bad thing if they go without - they will, for sure, no longer be "obese"!

At least the Guardian is honest about the reactionary logic of its ideas. But these ideas have been expressed for some time by organisations such as the Soil Association and other advocates of green and organic alternatives like the journalist George Monbiot who also writes for the Guardian. Monbiot also goes along with the idea that the outcomes - such as BSE and foot and mouth are due to the drive for "cheap food". Referring to the supermarkets who buy directly from big farming companies, he says "These practices ...permit us all to enjoy cheap food. In truth they merely force us to pay by other means, such as disease eradication programmes. The thousands of animals being burnt today are being sacrificed on the altar of supermarket profits".

But we do not enjoy "cheap food". Otherwise why would poor families be confined to buying processed and adulterated packet bread, frozen burgers and fish fingers and the hydrogenated margarines, processed umpteen times, the suga-rich fruit-poor jams and the "value" brands which are low quality foodstuffs sold slightly cheaper by the supermarkets?

Some German Greens - including Germany's new Agriculture Minister, Renate Kunast - go even one step further. They advocate that EU subsidies are eventually only paid to farmers who agree to farm organically.

And if it is reasoned that this would break the stranglehold of supermarkets. But this is a delusion. One of Britain's "Big Five" supermarkets, Sainsbury, actually sponsored the last conference of the main organic body, the Soil Association, and is making increasing profits marketing "organic produce". Of course all the supermarkets have jumped onto the organic bandwagon to capitalise on the latest food fears and fashions. Free range eggs account for 20% of the total sold in the UK, and Marks and Spencers sells only free range. Just how much freedom turns a chicken into a "free range" rather than "barn" or "battery", is not specified... But all these products are of course sold for 20-30% more than non- organic foods - a "cheap" way to increase profits!

An on-going crisis

While Blair finds it politically expedient to shed a few tears over the fate of small farmers affected by the foot and mouth outbreak, he fails to mention the fact that these small farmers have been the victims of an on-going crisis for decades. In fact, if it was not for this permanent crisis, most would probably have been able to cope with both BSE and foot and mouth.

Indeed the present situation needs to be put into perspective, leaving aside the politicking of Blair's ministers whose main concern seem to be to demonstrate that they are "up to it". In a typical week, the UK agricultural industry slaughters 600,000 pigs, sheep and cattle. Even if double as many livestock are destroyed as in 1967, this would only amount to 4% of the total which was likely to be slaughtered this year. What is more, a typical beef and sheep enterprise receives 40% of its revenue in the form of a direct payment from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is not affected by market conditions. And if the export ban presently in place continues the total loss would be about £800m or about 6% of the market value of the UK agricultural industry's annual sales. But this is unlikely. At present, the consequential loss from the export ban is around £16m per week.

But thousands of small and medium farmers are under threat of financial ruin quite independently of both BSE and foot and mouth. And the reason for this is that they just cannot compete with the large farming businesses which have benefited from subsidies in proportion to their size - that is hugely.

25% of large capital intensive farms produce 60-70% of the farming industry's total product today. The number of farms is shrinking (233,000 10 years ago compared to 168,000 today) and the size of farms increased significantly in the decade before that. As a result Britain has a higher proportion of large farms (over 400 hectares) than any other EU country.

But due to a number of factors, including the high pound, which devalues exports, farming incomes have been falling significantly in the last five years (they had, however, doubled in the previous five years).

The accountants, Deloitte and Touche found in a survey of their farming clients that the decrease in their incomes had been up to 90% in the last five years - and in the last year alone, 28%. Around 51,000 farmers and farm workers have left the land in the last two years alone.

Deloitte and Touche quoted one example of an "average 200 hectare" (500 acre) arable farm which earned £80,000 in the mid-1990s and is now bringing in just £8,000 annual income and may be chalking up a £4,000 loss in the coming year.

The increasing stranglehold of food processors and supermarkets on the small farmer has been a big factor in this. To give an example: farmers get an average of 17p per litre of milk from the dairy monopolies (Dairy Crest and Express Dairies) who buy their milk - but it costs 22p on average to produce a litre of milk. For many small to medium farmers, who do not have economies of scale to cushion them against pricing, this makes their production unviable. The supermarkets of course then sell a litre of milk for 35p - making as much as 10p or more profit per litre.

Given the protectionism which is a feature of the British farming industry and has been ever since WW2, the farming industry has always been characterised by a hostility to all things foreign and imported. It is ironical that the same farmers who are under pressure of the high pound are also the most vociferously against joining the euro. And where the sometimes overt xenophobia expressed by sections of farmers meets the "liberal" anti-globalisation protestors is in the demand for even more protectionism, import controls and the sustenance of small, local farms producing at higher prices for the local market.

One farmer from the Vale of Pewsey complained "Outside economic forces have done me in. You have no control over prices. Everything is set by outsiders. It doesn't matter how well you fare, it just gets harder and harder." In face he had given up and left farming. But the same situation prevails in Europe as whole, where 200,000 farmers left agriculture in 1999. In the US, farm incomes halved between 1996-1999. Suicide has become the commonest cause of death among farmers in the US, according to the International Society for Ecology and Culture.

What is really behind all of this is the fact that the lion's share of agriculture has been swallowed by a few countries (including Britain) and a few companies (some of which are British). One multinational, Cargill, controls 80% of the world's grain supplies; five companies account for 65% of the global pesticide market and just four companies control the world's supply of corn, wheat, tobacco, tea, rice, pineapples, jute, and timber. In Britain, 80% of agricultural subsidies are taken by the largest 20% of farmers.

Nationalisation of the land: the only solution

But the choice is not between unsafe, poor quality, low cost food produced by capital intensive large farms and good quality, safe food produced by labour intensive small farms. The economies of scale for society which are offered by big farms could actually benefit everyone. It is the profiteering of the capitalist farms and the food retailers to whom they sell, which is the problem. That this is not tackled by the so-called expert advocates of "organics" is not at all surprising. They cannot imagine a world without profits where production is organised on a vast scale, safely, using the highest level of technology and science, in the interests of the population.

Neither would most farmers, who cannot manage without government subsidy and protection, contemplate in the present circumstances becoming paid employees of the state on nationalised farms even though this is what their current dependency on the state verges on.

Yet other than turning the clock back to those "good old days" when hundreds of thousands of small farmers barely made a living, what is the alternative? An ex-economic advisor to the National Farmers Union, Sean Rickard, infuriated farmers when he posed the problem from the point of view of commercial farming and its shareholders. He said grants should no longer be given to small, "unviable" farms. Of course his argument that 2-3,000 such farms "go under" every year, due partly to their "poor business acumen" as well as the fact that they cannot compete with the large farms who could invest on a large scale, rightly upset these farmers. But he predicted that within a few years the bulk of farm food would be produced by just 20% of the current number of farmers. And this could well be the case.

Today what plagues the countryside as much as the towns is the invasion of capitalist profit and its ruthless exploitation of any opportunity to accumulate, regardless of the social cost. To that extent, the capitalist system has united the towns and the countryside by placing them in the same stranglehold. Those who are at the receiving end of this exploitation must be lucid enough to forget both their prejudices and their illusions in order to recognise their potential allies and identify their real enemies.

Ultimately it is the private ownership of the means of production - including the land - which both suffer from. It is a very long time since the idea of nationalisation of the land has had any currency in the British working class movement. This is due, in particular to the fact that this was turned into an empty slogan by the Labour Party, long before Blair dropped the tiny hint to it which had survived in "clause four" of the party's constitution.

And yet, in the face of the destruction of the countryside, and its human and material resources by capital, in the name of private property and private profit, what other choice is there for society than to take this precious resource out of the hands of the capitalist sharks who are ruining it? How else can the rational rebuilding of farming resources begin? Not on the basis of ove-exploiting labour, nor on the basis of over-pricing food as advocates of organic farming propose, but on the basis of the pooling together of scientific knowledge, technology and natural resources according to a rational plan, aimed at saving human labour, while meeting the real needs that exist. As Marx wrote in a memorandum in 1869: "Nationalisation of the land will work a complete change in the relations between labour and capital and finally do away altogether with capitalist production, whether industrial or rural."

This is the only viable way to make good quality and safe food for available for all and to preserve the land and its resources. It will be the task of the working class of this country to revive this fundamental aim of all social transformation.

3rd March 2001