LONDON — Americans and Japanese have been shunning Britain because of the stories and images of burning animals in the foot-and-mouth-disease scare. One Japanese, I hope in jest, asked if we had enough to eat. We responded that we did not need food parcels just yet! Another group to whom I had promised to speak canceled their visit in late May, presumably because they thought Britain was under siege. I said that if this was the Japanese image of Britain today, it was totally false.
Life goes on much as it has done for years. Most of the major tourist attractions are open. London has a plethora of fine exhibitions. The theaters and concert halls are offering some outstanding performances at prices that must arouse the envy of Japanese used to exorbitant charges for concerts and operas. Our festivals compete well with prestigious venues such as Salzburg. British restaurants are a lot better than they were, and good food is available in all ranges. British shops are full of merchandise at competitive prices. Britain is open for business largely as usual.
What has gone wrong? Quite a lot. There is no evidence that foot-and-mouth disease can spread to humans. It is an unpleasant complaint for animals but need not be fatal. Slaughtering animals is not the only remedy. Vaccination is possible, even if not totally effective. These facts were glossed over by the Ministry of Agriculture, which represents the farming industry, and by the farmers.
Why? Because they wanted to preserve the British export market for meat and livestock. This could only be achieved by obtaining recognition that Britain was free from the disease, and they wanted to show they were taking drastic action to slaughter all infected animals and any in danger of infection. As usual, money was the issue, i.e., money for farmers, many of whom have survived and grown fat on subsidies under the European Common Agricultural Policy. Even now we have been told of one farmer in the north of England who has claimed and received 1 million pounds in compensation for his slaughtered animals.
The Ministry of Agriculture has once again shown its incompetence and its failure to recognize broader national interests. They did not have the resources to enforce their slaughter policy quickly, and even after the army was called in to help with the slaughter and the disposal of carcasses, facilities proved inadequate. Animals had to be shot with rifles; some were merely wounded and then had to be finished off.
In fact the numbers of animals that have had to be slaughtered, are only a small part of British farmers’ livestock and have to be seen against the numbers of animals slaughtered each week in Britain for food. Again, the facts have not been given adequate prominence.
Some farmers must share the blame. It seems probable that there may have been an attempt at first to cover up the existence of the disease. It also appears that the disease was spread by the policy of moving animals around the country to be fattened up for slaughter in different abattoirs. Some farmers have also been accused of making fraudulent claims for compensation.
Other farmers, mainly small ones, and their animals have been made to suffer for these mistakes. Farmers were forbidden to move sheep and lambs as well as cattle to other fields when pasturage was exhausted. Some suffering lambs have died as a result. (The Animal Rights movement has been strangely silent on this score, still focused as it is on attacking Huntingdon Life Sciences for its experiments on animals on behalf of pharmaceutical companies).
The farmers can claim compensation. The tourist trade, which is a much bigger money-earner and employer, is likely to get, at best, some small loans to tide them over. Tourism has no separate ministry, and in the government its voice has been muted until very recently, when the prime minister woke up to the threat to an important source of foreign exchange.
The government originally urged people to keep out of the countryside and instructed that all footpaths over or beside farmland should be closed. The local authorities in rural areas, which tend to be dominated by farmers and landowners who hate the associations of walkers and ramblers, responded with enthusiasm.
Despite calls from the government to open footpaths in safe areas, despite the fact that many parts of the country (for example, in East Sussex, where we have a house) have been fortunately free of the disease, and despite the fact that the disease could be just as easily spread by wild animals such as foxes and birds, the footpaths here remain closed to humans. Pubs, bed-and-breakfast accommodation, cycle-hire companies and all the peripheral tourist organizations face mounting losses while we are forced to get our exercise on country lanes where young people in a hurry drive often at reckless speeds.
Meanwhile, in Japan, it seems that the Ministry of Agriculture — which, like its British equivalent, is in thrall to the farmers — is determined to pick a quarrel with China over scallions and mushrooms! A few Japanese vegetable farmers may perhaps benefit from the protection afforded them, but Japanese consumers will suffer, as well as the Japanese national interest, which lies in pushing hard for free trade.
Both the British and Japanese governments should vow to abolish their ministries of agriculture and treat farming like every other industry. Down with subsidies and down with protectionism!
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