End factory farming

Yet again, we are in the midst of a foot-and-mouth scare. Eddie Ford analyses the situation

Yet again, we are in the midst of a foot-and-mouth scare. The first case was found on August 3 at Woolford Farm near Guildford in Surrey, and three days later a second incident was confirmed at a nearby farm. And then, on August 7, the health and safety executive declared that there was a "strong probability" that the outbreak originated from the Pirbright research site located only a few miles from the infected farms.

Pirbright is home to both the privately run vaccine manufacturer, Merial, and the state-run Institute for Animal Health. Merial has been involved in large-scale production of the foot-and-mouth strain, amounting to some 10,000 litres or so. And the IAH, according to a short press statement, has been conducting "small-scale" experiments into foot-and-mouth vaccination programmes.

Currently, government health inspectors are investigating the possibility that foot-and-mouth was transferred to the Surrey farms by one or more Pirbright employees. Going by current evidence, there is a distinct possibility that recent drainage problems led to some sort of surface leak. Given such a premise, it is not difficult to imagine the disease coming into contact with human feet or car tyres, for instance - and as a consequence spreading in all directions.

Not that any of this, of course, has prevented rather lurid speculation about the "deliberate transfer" of the foot-and-mouth strain, as if we were dealing with a case of bio-terrorism. Nor has it stopped Merial from protesting - perhaps a bit too much - about how there is "no evidence" to prove that the virus was spread by humans, especially any of its employees.

But, whatever the exact cause or location of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, the farming industry has been hit hard once again - still reeling from the floods which destroyed vast swathes of crops.

Since the end of last week, over 200 cattle have been culled, and 110,000 farms - which incorporate 23 million sheep, ten million cattle and five million pigs - have been affected by a government movement ban, although some restrictions have now been relaxed in Scotland. And on top of all that there is the European Union ban on all British exports of fresh meat, live animals and dairy products - an export market, it is worth pointing out, that is worth some £500 million a year.

Unsurprisingly, the National Farmers' Union is screaming blue murder - threatening to take legal action against anyone found responsible for the outbreak. Peter Kendall, the NFU's president, told the BBC that there is "incredulity and shock" that a research facility that works to protect against disease could have been the actual source of the latest foot-and-mouth outbreak. He also added that claims for compensation could "run into millions of pounds".

Quite clearly, leaving aside the specificities of the latest foot-and-mouth outbreak, modern-day capitalist farming methods - all designed to maximise profits by almost any means necessary - provide a near ideal environment for disease and rapid infection. Whatever the propaganda of the big farmers and their agribusiness partners, large-cum-mega-scale, intensive factory farming is polluting the land, degrading the quality of our food and posing a general threat to the entire eco-system.

Of course, it is correct to argue - as the latest edition of Socialist Worker does - that, vaccination is "much preferable to mass slaughter" (August 11). But the fact remains that a policy of mass vaccination against all known strains of disease is simply unfeasible - if not bordering on the impossible. And eventually, as sure as night follows day, the bacteria will become immune to the vaccines, and then the situation becomes even worse and more difficult to overcome.

More to the point, as Socialist Worker almost appears to forget, under capitalism meat is a commodity just like any other and is produced for profit - and any campaign of mass vaccination would effectively mean that British livestock loses its 'disease-free' status. Not an attractive proposition for most farmers.

Self-evidently, there is an obvious drawback to large-scale and factory farming - it relentlessly stacks up more and more contradictions, leading to increasingly unnatural conditions for the animals and lower and lower quality food - shit food in fact, almost literally. And it does not end there, of course. The conditions for the workers in such an industry are more often than not utterly atrocious - having to put up with constant noise, stink, excrement, etc. All in all, it is hardly astonishing that, given daily exposure to such an environment, many of these workers tend to end up regarding the livestock purely as things which can be treated in a most barbaric and unnatural way. And by doing so these workers become dehumanised themselves.

So what is the communist approach to agriculture and farming? In essence, we follow the approach, or tradition, outlined in sketch form by Marx and expanded in theoretical and programmatic detail by Karl Kautsky - especially in his exceptional 1899 study, The agrarian question. While we favour large-scale industrial production, we think that as a general policy farms should be medium-sized, as opposed to the mega-sized so beloved of and intrinsic to capitalism.

Or, to put it another way, communists aim for a variegated agricultural sector which would be based on medium-sized farms - but also encourage many small farms - to provide people with interesting, wholesome and local food.

The main reason for this preference is that crop rotation, for instance, becomes all but impossible once the farm goes beyond a certain size - after that, farmers are obliged to use a whole armoury of artificial fertilisers instead of natural animal manure. In terms of livestock, this means something that should be an asset - ie, animal shit - becomes a deadly liability when the quantities involved become unmanageable.

How do you get rid of it, when it is no longer used to fertilise crops? Well, it is turned into slurry and stored in tanks - which carries the attendant danger of leaks and spillage, and the potential to significantly pollute water supplies.

The industrialisation of agriculture under capitalism tends to create forms of breeding that are - quite true - more productive and profitable than ever before. But at the very same time it creates the conditions for a massive increase in instances of pests and epidemics among animals. In this way, denaturised breeding has the tendency to counteract natural immunity and resistance to disease, and thus create new varieties of animals and plants whose resistance was low.

A distinct - but decidedly unwanted - feature of capitalism is the separation of town and country life, which logically results in a highly irrational system. That is, one where farming is adapted to produce for a massive but thoroughly alien market in the towns and cities - a market where more and more of the population live, but which is more and more separated in every sense (including culturally) from where their food originates. It is this complete separation that gives rise to the need for the most denatured varieties and processes as a substitute for accessibility.

Hence we end up with the situation we have now, where, to borrow phraseology from Marx, there is no metabolic exchange between what people eat and what they flush away. In turn, this just reinforces the need for more and more artificial products in agriculture, and for more and more artificial means to drive the mass production necessary for the mass urban markets. Consequently, more and more is produced on this separated basis, which in turn only acts to expand the role of the cities - and therefore this separation becomes increasingly more pronounced and grotesque and, indeed, profoundly unnatural.

Communists, on the other hand, envisage a social revolution and the progressive transformation of all existing conditions - we actively struggle for the rounded development of all human beings, a fight which even now intrinsically challenges the distinction between urban and rural living. An integral part of what we want is the greening of cities and the humanising of the countryside. This forms the core of our programme for universal human liberation - as opposed to merely fighting, or pleading, for increased funding from the department for environment, food and rural affairs, as Socialist Worker does.

All this can only be fully achieved on the basis of a society where production not for profit, but production on the basis of need, production geared to a central, democratic plan, becomes a reality.

As for the countryside itself, that too must be reorganised according to need and placed under democratic control. Today, quite obscenely, some 0.28% of families own 64% of the land in Britain - an intolerable situation. All the big farms and landed estates - not meaning every small organic farm or Devon cream tea café - should be nationalised and run for human need, not heavily subsidised profit. We want to end monoculture and therefore reverse the asphyxiating spread of rural deserts - a process that would go hand in hand with establishing, or restoring, the widest biodiversity in certain chosen areas.

Whole tracts of land should be designated as wilderness areas; forests, heaths, marshes, glades and woods could be made or remade; and species previously driven to extinction - wolves, bears, bison, wild pigs, etc - could be reintroduced in a planned way. This would be for the benefit of nature and the enjoyment of people.

The countryside must be served by frequent and cheap transport. Equally importantly, the distance between the points of production and consumption must be shortened in a way that puts an end to the profligate use of finite resources in the haulage sector, and so on. After all, aren't we all supposed to be cutting down on our carbon emissions as part of the fight against global warming?

Our prime concern is about the quality of food we put in our stomachs. Workers have a right to high-quality, varied, genuinely appetising food - not the present 'one size fits all' mass-produced crap that is so unhealthy and produced at such cost to society and nature itself.