LONDON — An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain has caused a panic among farmers here and in the rest of Europe. Farms have been isolated and large numbers of animals, slaughtered on suspicion of harboring the disease, have been incinerated on the spot. Parks, where deer may be found, have been closed and footpaths in the countryside shut to ramblers. Cars approaching or leaving farmland have to cross disinfected straw. The authorities have behaved as if Britain were facing an outbreak of the Black Death.

In fact, foot-and-mouth disease is endemic in many parts of the world, including Asia, and the virus is easily transmitted, especially in the cold weather from which Britain has been suffering. It is an unpleasant disease for the animals infected, but stronger animals recover reasonably quickly. In contrast to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which can in rare cases cause a brain disease in humans, there is no evidence that foot-and-mouth disease in cattle can infect humans or animals other than those with cloven hooves. There are vaccines, but they are said to be costly and not always effective for long periods — not least because of the number of different strains of the disease.

Do we really have to adopt the current drastic measures? The answer appears to lie in the economics of modern animal husbandry. The breeding and feeding for slaughter of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry have become industrialized processes designed to produce cheaper and more plentiful meat supplies. Markets dictate. The slaughter of infected or potentially infected animals, which is designed to eradicate the disease, is thought to be cheaper in the long run than the vaccination of herds. But the cost of the current outbreak in terms of compensation to farmers and truckers alone will be huge, and even if the disease is eradicated from British herds it will be a long time before British farmers will be able to export animals and meat again.

It seems probable that the disease reached Britain in an item of processed food from a country where the disease is endemic. It is hard to see how a similar incident could be prevented except by means of Draconian controls on all food imports from abroad, similar to those enforced in New Zealand. But this is hardly possible in a European country such as Britain. It may be that we should revert to vaccination rather than continue with the mass slaughter policy.

The foot-and-mouth disease panic has focused political attention on the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy. The costs of dealing with this crisis and that caused by BSE, which has become a major political and economic problem for, say, the Germans, will put a huge strain on the CAP budget. When the Central and Eastern European countries are admitted to the EU. the CAP will have to be reformed further. The new German minister of agriculture has demanded that much greater emphasis be placed on organic farming and new efforts be made to reduce overproduction leading to beef “mountains” (in refrigeration) and “lakes” of olive oil (in tanks).

But reform will be very difficult to achieve. Farmers, especially in France, have a great deal of political muscle and have already shown what they can do to intimidate the politicians through demonstrations in Brussels. A proposal that farmers should be subsidized more by member states than by the EU is unacceptable to, for example, the French, who have gained more from the CAP than they have paid into the kitty. But unless there are radical changes to the CAP it could break the whole process of enlargement of the EU.

While the people of the EU want cheap food, they also want safer food. The industrialization of livestock farming has not made food safer, as many thought it would. Cutting costs can mean reducing safeguards.

The answer, however, certainly does not lie in still more protectionist policies. The March 3 issue of the Economist concluded that for Europe “the best course is to buy food from those who are really best at producing it, who are most technologically advanced at keeping it safe, and who, quite simply, produce the best food. Food cannot be cheap, local, green, safe and varied, all at the same time.”

The Japanese authorities should take note. The same issue of the Economist records that in a list of countries providing support to agricultural producers the amount per full-time farmer given by Japan was only exceeded in Norway and Switzerland. Interestingly, the fourth on this list was the United States, which provided quite a lot more per farmer than the EU. As one might expect, among the lowest were Australia and New Zealand.

The Nikkei Weekly reported on Feb. 26 that Japan was proposing at the next round of multilateral trade talks in the World Trade Organization a reduction in the already minimum import quota for rice and new safeguards against foreign access to the Japanese market. This has predictably aroused foreign criticism, but for domestic political reasons the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is apparently sticking to its proposals. It does not seem to care that Japan’s high food prices add to Japan’s cost of living, damaging consumers and undermining Japan’s competitiveness. Because farmers support the Liberal Democratic Party, their interests take precedence over the national interest. The reactionary attitude of the ministry should reinforce calls for radical political reform in Japan. Rural constituencies are over-represented in the Diet at the expense of the urban constituencies where most consumers live.

The development of saner agricultural policies, which, while providing for a reasonable livelihood for farmers, protect the interests of consumers and ensure food safety and humane treatment of animals, should be a high priority for the world’s leaders.

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