Foot and mouth outbreak

Class approach needed

By the time this article is published, the number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease will probably be in the region of 450, if not higher. Already some 300,000 infected animals have been destroyed and government plans for a pre-emptive cull of healthy sheep, pigs and goats in the hot spot areas of Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway will, if carried out, see this figure double.

An official spokesman, in the form of the deputy chief veterinary officer, Martin Atkinson, has finally got round to admitting that we are dealing with a genuine epidemic that is still in its early stages. Small wonder that hapless agriculture secretary Nick Brown has stopped claiming that the problem is "under control". Those of us who are old enough to have lived through the nine-month-long 1967 outbreak recognise that the current situation, after a mere four weeks, is by any standard much more serious. The livestock industry is facing nothing short of a catastrophe.

Even before the reappearance of this dreadful pestilence, British farming was already in acute crisis: the aftermath of BSE, combined with the worst agricultural depression for 70 years and such factors as the largely unreported consequences of last autumn's flooding on arable production, have led to a situation in which more than 50,000 jobs have been lost in the industry in less than two years. The future of thousands more small farmers and rural workers now rests in the hands of the banks. At risk are not just their jobs, but their homes and thus their whole culture and way of life. Had the devastation of human livelihoods on such a scale occurred in any other sector of the economy, there would have been an outcry from the left. Instead, there has been virtually nothing apart from the routine (albeit justified) condemnation of the baleful effects of globalised capitalism on the production and distribution of food.

Discussion of the problem in the media has thus far been dominated by technical questions relating to the control of the disease. Certainly it appears that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has failed to learn the lessons of 1967. Of course, the current crisis is of a different magnitude: in 1967 the average small farm would have run a few dozen cattle, rather than the hundreds that you find today; most stock would have been slaughtered in local abattoirs, more than 60% of which have since been closed under pressure from the big supermarkets for a more 'rational' form of distribution.

But crass mistakes by the ministry, arising fundamentally from a failure to deploy adequate resources to tackle the problem, have led to a chaotic situation. Back in 1967, diagnosis by a vet was sufficient to authorise immediate slaughter; now it is taking up to a week or more before needless centralised laboratory testing confirms infection. Even after infection is established and the killing carried out, carcasses are being left for more than a week, while arrangements for disposal by burning are put in place. Farmyards are littered with bloating, putrescent corpses.

Officials tell us that dead animals no longer spread the infection. But it remains active in tissues and organs after death. Crows, rooks, magpies, starlings, foxes and rats feast on the remains, and within 24 hours they excrete the virus, thus spreading the disease. European Union environmental regulations now make it impossible expeditiously to bury livestock in quicklime, as was the practice in 1967. No account is taken of the fact that today's 'environmentally friendly' method of disposal brings with it the risk of infection being carried by thermal currents from the monstrous funeral pyres.

Ignorance and prejudice bedevil any proper debate. Supposedly well informed commentators tell us that the disease is no worse for livestock than a bad case of influenza; that a programme of mass vaccination could eradicate the problem; that the meat of infected animals is fit for human consumption, and so forth. They fly in the face of both scientific and, much more importantly, economic realities. The 'type O', Asiatic strain responsible for the current outbreak is only one of some 40 variants of a virus that readily mutates. So-called 'ring vaccination' against 'type O' around identified hot spots might contribute to stemming the present problem, but a policy of mass vaccination against all known strains is simply unfeasible. More to the point, these wiseacres appear to forget that under capitalism meat is a just like any other commodity produced for profit and that vaccination would effectively mean that British livestock would lose its disease-free status. Its meat would be unsaleable and the industry as a whole would inevitably collapse.

Similarly, those who blame intensive farming methods for this outbreak are wide of the mark. Legal considerations concerning eventual prosecutions have led the media to drop all discussion of the source of the disease in this case, but it would appear that the problem arose in a relatively small, run-down family farm in the north east, where pigs were fed with swill from local school kitchens. There has been speculation that the local education authority, burdened by its own tight financial constraints, bought cheap, possibly infected, meat to feed to the school students. The swill was probably not heat-treated according to regulations and thus the plague began.

Responsibility for the spread of the infection lies with the centralised system of slaughter, dictated by the big supermarket buyers, whereby animals are transported hundreds of miles to rendering and meat-packing plants, in this case in Essex. Until now, most of us were probably unaware that, under chaotic and irrational EU regulations, it remains perfectly legal for member countries to import meat products from the 30 or so states where foot and mouth is endemic.

Only in recent days have the mainstream media come to recognise the obvious fact that there is a profound political dimension to the current crisis. Even now their attention remains narrowly focused on the question as to whether the May 3 local elections and the putative general election on the same day will have to be delayed. Labour seems determined to press ahead with an election that need not be held for another year. Perhaps Gordon Brown is telling Blair that the billions of pounds of lost revenue resulting from foot and mouth and the consequent compensation payments to farmers and rural businesses - not to mention the mayhem in world stock markets - will make economic nonsense of the pre-election bribes contained in his recent budget. Better to go early than risk holding an election against the background of a burgeoning financial and fiscal crisis?

Whatever the reasons for this rush to the polls, it hardly seems likely that the Millbank machine, in the light of all available opinion-poll evidence, can regard the Conservatives as a serious threat. The Tories' handling of the foot and mouth problem is reminiscent of the way they approached last year's fuel protests - first, some 'statesmanlike' posturing of solidarity with government in the face of an emergency, then some pathetic, half-baked, cocked up opportunism. What farmers wanted to hear from William Hague was an unequivocal commitment that the Conservatives, if elected, would do all in their power to rescue the industry from a depression that threatens its very existence, but they heard nothing of the kind.

The fact is that New Labour, with its metropolitan, urban, ideologically antagonistic approach to the rural crisis has brought about a situation in which the divide between town and country has become an acute political question. Let us not forget that, had it not been for foot and mouth, last Sunday would have seen maybe 500,000 demonstrators on the streets of London in one of the biggest mass protests for a decade or more. To ignore this phenomenon, to dismiss it as merely a grotesque outburst by huntin', shootin' and fishin' reactionaries intent on preserving their 'elitist' way of life, may be Labour's tack, but it should not be ours.

Certainly the Countryside Alliance has a reactionary agenda. It is about much more than preserving the 'rural way of life' and the right to hunt with hounds. Overwhelmingly the March 18 protesters would have been Tory members or supporters, and elements within the Conservative Party, faced with the possibility of being unable to win a general election for the foreseeable future, may well be considering how such a movement could be employed, should they be tempted to resort to unconstitutional methods. Nevertheless, many small farmers have been driven by desperation into the arms of the Countryside Alliance.

We are confronted by a class question, just as we were last year, when trying to make sense of the petrol protests that were in large part inspired by a despairing, doomed revolt on the part of the rural petty bourgeoisie. At that time, we endeavoured to theorise the question in Marxist terms, to point to the fact that the problems of the rural petty bourgeoisie - i.e., small farmers and related small businesses - not to mention those of the thousands of wage-labourers who constitute the isolated, unorganised rural proletariat, must find a solution in a revolutionary socialist programme (Weekly Worker October 26 2000).

Historically, the economistic left has tended to write off these strata as composing a reactionary bloc, mired in rural idiocy. The question of organising food production on a planned, rational and democratic basis, consistent with a decent livelihood for farmers and farmworkers, as well as providing plentiful, healthy and cheap nutrition for town-dwellers, has just been ignored, on the basis - presumably - that it is one of the many problems that will somehow be sorted out after the revolution. That is not good enough.

Just as during the fuel protests, a spontaneous grouping of militant, rank and file small farmers, Farmers for Action, is in the process of formation, pledged to fight Blair's plans for a compulsory cull of healthy animals.

They believe - rightly - that the leaders of the National Farmers Union, like their predecessors in the industrial trade union bossocracy, are so determined to keep their foot in the door of No10 Downing Street that they will, if necessary, sell their own members down the river. It may well be that, as last time, these activists will be suppressed by the power of the state machine, but at this stage an aggressive, even armed response to the government cannot be ruled out, even if only in individual, isolated cases.

As it happens, the FFA people - leaving aside for the moment their decidedly mixed political complexion - have an arguable case. To begin with, simple monetary compensation (at rock bottom prices) for slaughtered stock is totally inadequate. Restocking will on average take some 18 months to two years, if not longer, and in the meantime affected livestock farmers will have no income stream with which to pay bank loans and other bills. Those who are tenant farmers (perhaps the majority) will risk losing not just their livelihood, but the roof over their heads. The same applies to their farmhands, who will be laid off immediately, without redundancy payments or any other form of gratuity such as the majority of their fellow workers in industry can expect.

The problems facing sheep farmers right now are particularly severe. At the busiest time of the year, they find themselves in the situation of not being able to bring pregnant ewes into proper sheltered accommodation for lambing. Significant losses are inevitable. And shamefully, the ministry has decreed that the unborn lambs of pregnant ewes compulsorily culled will not be taken into account when it comes to compensation.

It is no surprise that the FFA has found strong support among the sheep farmers of Cumbria, where special factors add to the already desperate situation. If, despite their protests, the mass cull of all animals within a three-kilometre range of any infected site does take place, it will inescapably mean the loss of valuable pedigree flocks together with irreplaceable bloodlines. You cannot just take sheep from Hertfordshire or Kent, drop them in the Fells and expect all to be well. Neither hardy nor hefted, the animals will simply not survive in local conditions, so the 'pre-emptive' cull spells disaster for one of the most intensive sheep-rearing areas of the country.

Some comrades may be inclined to point to the fact that farmers comprise perhaps one percent of the electorate and that most of them vote Tory anyway, so why bother? Why? Because a genuine socialist programme must address the interests of all who are oppressed and alienated by the destructive and chaotic capitalist mode of production, and that includes the vast majority of those who work the land and rear livestock for our tables.

It was for this reason that the CPGB's 'Socialist Alliance draft programme' included under our immediate demands a section (3.18) addressing the needs of small businesses and farms (Weekly Worker January 25).

Amongst other things we demanded, "secure right of tenure for owner-occupiers, small farmers and small businesses, with low rents"; the "cancellation of debts to banks arising from disproportionately high interest rates"; and the "encouragement of the formation of producers' cooperatives through the provision of scientific and technical advice, research facilities, administrative machinery, grants for capital improvements, etc".

At the March 10 Birmingham national conference of the Socialist Alliance, it was good to see that this message had got across and that amendment 8 on the order paper, passed nem con by all those present, specifically acknowledged the existence of a "rural crisis in Britain" and proposed concrete measures to overcome it as part of the SA's general election manifesto.

Michael Malkin