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LONDON — Every industrialized country in the world has this idealized image: the farmer, full of robust common sense, tending his pig or his flock on his small land-holding, sturdily helped by his hardworking wife and children. He is close to the earth and nature. It is true that, in Japan or America’s Midwest or France or Ireland these days, this happy family is more likely to be found in paintings than on the land, but the farmer survives the hurricane of globalization in our imaginations.

In rural Britain, devastated by mad cow disease, and now foot-and-mouth disease, that childhood ideal is suddenly seen for what it is: a fantasy, a wish, a nostalgic dream. Producing food of any sort has long been a mass industrial process, dependent on the chemical industry, on mass transport, on methods that leave little to chance and nothing to individual care. Pigs are not raised singly and by hand: They are mere units of production, crushed into breeding and feeding camps, part of the inexorable conveyor belt of agribusiness that will carry them seamlessly from their moment of conception via artificial insemination to routinized slaughter in a large and distant abattoir, then to be sliced and chopped by machine before ending up as pink meat items double wrapped in plastic on the supermarket shelf.

The winners in this transnational business of food production are, in Britain, anonymous. The companies that control the chemicals, feeding and breeding technology are transnational. There are now fewer than 170,000 farms in Britain, many of them employing no permanent staff but dependent on those contract farming companies that can raise the capital to buy the huge and expensive farm machinery that is dictated by global economics. Consumers who once nursed the happy image of the farmer’s wife feeding the pig from her slop-pail discovered during the mad-cow crisis that animals do not eat grass, or food as we understand it, but pellets manufactured by a company they have never heard of. (In fact, this current crisis appears to have originated in a farm in the north of England, where the pigs were fed on swill collected from local schools. But the critics here won’t yield their point about agribusiness; if animals were not transported rapidly over vast distances, the virus could not leap from farm to farm and proliferate in every part of Britain.)

Until recently, British people were quite nonchalant about the decline of the small farmer; indeed, many economists even took pride in the long-ago death of the British peasantry. While other countries, such as France or Ireland, were held back, many thought, by the size of their peasantry, Britain was able to surge ahead in industry because its labor and its capital were freed from the soil and the seasons. This difference between Britain and the rest of Europe was often cited as the primary reason for Britain’s peculiar status in the European Union. Unlike other countries, Britain was not trying to subsidize the maintenance of small-farm production. For a long time, Britain was the most vociferous critic of the old European Community’s Common Agricultural Policy which in effect sustained life on the land in Western Europe. In contrast, the Brits trumpeted their successes in efficient food production on the strength of agribusiness methods.

Now British farmers say they are in despair. The rest of the British population gives them some sympathy as they sit, confined to home by the bans imposed on all movement on or off farms. But the current crisis over British farming also prompts a “what-did-we-tell-you?” response from both city dwellers and the minority of small organic farmers. The common sense of this latter group declares that living things cannot be incorporated into a mechanized industrial process without great harm being done. A pig, like a person, needs freedom to move, breathe and eat.

There are some optimists around, even as every news bulletin brings more reports of the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. The optimists think this is the crisis Britain needed to make ordinary consumers realize that if really cheap food depends on having mechanized industrial processes, then it is better to have more expensive food. Just as the cramming of people into unsanitary cities in the 19th century prompted first the rapid spread of contagious diseases (physical and social) and then the series of sanitary and welfare measures that made city life possible, so this farming crisis will prompt agricultural reform. Consumers will realize they cannot have cheap food and healthy land. The two are incompatible.

In the 1980s, a similar crisis of infected livestock, in this case salmonella, in Sweden prompted a radical change in methods of food production. There was more space and fresh air for the chickens and pigs, less reliance on antibiotics to keep the animals alive until their appointed time of death had arrived. Now the Scandinavian countries that had agriculture as intensive as Britain’s produce the highest proportion of organic food in Western Europe, and it is more expensive. People in Britain buy a higher proportion of their food in supermarkets than do people in any other Western European country and expect it to be cheap, hygienic and as unlike a living creature as it could be.

It is an oddity of the human sensibility that while most people can happily eat an animal that has lived and been killed beside them, seeing this perhaps as just part of nature’s cycle, the same people become extremely squeamish about eating animals they have never met. With the cycles of nature so devastatingly disrupted by agribusiness, perhaps the animals it produces become poignantly symbolic of animal life, of how utterly humans can eradicate other species if they have the means. The more distant we become from the lives of the animals that we pitilessly consume, the more powerful becomes the sentiment to give those animals a better life. As animal-rights groups proliferate, drawing in support from hitherto apolitical women and children, the crisis of foot-and-mouth disease becomes a much larger crisis of man’s relation to the natural world and his own animal self.

Perhaps this is why, for the first time ever, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his agriculture minister, Nick Brown, are contemplating a shift from agribusiness to small-scale farming. However, without accompanying policies in the EU and support from consumers, such a shift would not dislodge the grip that a small number of companies have over the food-production process.

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