A conspiracy to kill off the countryside

Christopher Booker

Daily Mail Aug 7, 2001

TO THOSE of us who have been trying to follow the details of the foot-and-mouth crisis since it began in February, there have always been two great mysteries.

The first Is why the Government’s response has been so astonishingly incompetent. Everything it has done has seemed designed, not to bring the disease rapidly to an end, but to kill as many animals as possible and so inflict maximum damage on Britain’s small livestock farmers.

The second mystery has been why the Government’s propaganda machine has been so consistent in its efforts to blacken the farmers and, wherever possible blame them as the real cause of the problem.

In recent days, we have seen the spin doctors again upping the ante, with off-the-record briefings about farmers paying money to have their farms infected in order to get compensation. Then followed leaks about the ‘37 farmers who have become millionaires’ on cheques from the ministry..

But this has only been the latest instalment in a black propaganda campaign which goes back to March, when, repeatedly, it has been claimed farmers themselves were somehow the villains of the story.

Most bizarre has been the Government’s continued accusation that farmers were spreading the disease by fall-are to observe strict hygiene precautions, while evidence has poured In from every affected area that no one has been more recklessly irresponsible about ‘biosecurity’ than the Government’s own officials and employees.

And all this has taken place against the background of a strategy for tackling the disease which has left every International authority on foot-and-mouth totally baffled by its nonsensical impracticality. Experts such as Professor Fred Brown, an Eng1ishman who now works for the American government, have been nonplussed by the Government’s unprecedented ‘contiguous cull policy’, under which millions of animals have been killed Just because they are on farms within ‘three kilometres’ of a case of infection.

They have also been amazed by the Government’s refusal to use a full-scale vaccination programme, which, they argue, was the only conceivable way to end what has now mushroomed into the worst epidemic of foot-and-mouth ever recorded.

The more these two mysteries are puzzled over, the more they always seem to come down in the end to one question: is the real explanation for the Government s seemingly inexplicable conduct that it is working to a hidden agenda?

As the epidemic enters Its seventh month, there is no longer any doubt that —despite those much-vaunted compensation payments —tens of thousands of small live-stock producers have been so traumatised that they will be getting out of farming for ever. Already the total number of animals destroyed is over six million — one in ten of all the farm animals In Britain.

If the epidemic continues well into next year, as seems likely; the eventual reduction in Britain’s livestock population could be as high as one in five. And is this, we have to ask, what the Government is really after? Is the real, unspoken purpose of the way it has played this crisis to ensure a massive reduction in the numbers of both animals, particularly sheep, and the farming families who depend on them for their livelihood?

Long before foot-and-mouth appeared, it was clear that this Government was not only unsympathetic to Britain’s-countryside, but actively hostile to much of what it was thought to represent. The rural areas of Britain were the very embodiment of those ‘forces of conservatism’ which Mr Blair’s Government was to destroy.

It just happened this ideological prejudice dovetailed very neatly with what had long been the scarcely veiled conviction of senior officials in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF —now the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs or DEFRA) that British agriculture needed ‘radical restructuring’, to make it more ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’.

Strategy

What they meant by this was that Britain’s farming should be concentrated into larger, more ‘efficient’ units.

And nothing stood in the way of this more than those hundreds of thousands of small ‘inefficient’ livestock farmers of the kind who have been in the front line of this disaster.

In this overall strategy for the future of British agriculture, MAFF has had no closer ally than the National Farmers Union (NFU).

The NFU is often misunderstood as representing British-farming as a whole. In fact, it’s an organisation wholly controlled by large farming interests, from the ‘barley barons’ of East Anglia to big intensive livestock producers, who regard farms as factories. They have nothing whatever In common with those impoverished hill farmers of Cumbria or Wales.

The tragic fact is that the foot-and-mouth epidemic has appeared to MAFF and the NFU as what is known as a ‘beneficial crisis’, an event which may look in the short-term like a disaster, but which actually provides the catalyst for achieving longer-term benefits.

In this respect, the long-term strategists of MAFF and the NFU could not have found a more natural ally than the Government, combining hatred of the countryside with a sentimental fascination for anything presented as ‘modern’ and ‘efficient’.

It was particularly telling that the only moment when ministers briefly flirted with the idea of vaccination, as the way of bringing the epidemic quickly to an end, was back in March and April when Mr Blair began to panic that the crisis might interfere with his General Election plans.

But this was scuppered by MAFF and the NFU who forced vaccination back off the agenda, accompanied by a massive disinformation campaign in which almost every point they made to discredit it either had no scientific basis or was simply a lie.

There was never any intention in MAFF or the NFU that this crisis should be solved in the way the genuine scientific experts were recommending—because it would not satisfy that hidden agenda, that as many of Britain’s small livestock farmers should be driven out of business as possible.

Slaughter

That is why, even now, tens of thousands of animals are still being killed every week on the hills of South Wales and Cumbria, and why ministry officials are preparing to test countless more, from Yorkshire to the West Country, well aware they will find enough ‘antibodies’ to justify continuing the slaughter for months to come. What they may not have reckoned with is the appalling environmental and social cost which will follow the wiping out of the animals which keep those areas looking picturesque for the tourists, or the wider costs to Britain’s economy already estimated to have reached 20 billion.

But it is only appropriate that the Government’s contempt for the countryside should have led it into a catastrophe for which, one day it may have to pay a terrible political price.