ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

Date:  6 March 2001

Two more articles on the future of agriculture:

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1.    FOOT AND MOUTH:  ORGANIC FARMING:  Cheap food is exacting a terrible
       price -  The Independent (London) 4 March 2001 - by Jo Budden

A north Devon farm that went organic ten years ago has no protection against foot and mouth.  But its owners believe theirs is the best way forward.

Today, for once, the sun is shining, the birds are singing and there are blue skies over the rolling hillsides of north Devon.  After months of seemingly endless rain there are signs of spring. In a moment I have to collect the children from the village primary school. I will change my clothes, and shoes, disinfect them, get in the car parked outside the farmyard, and drive to the village and back,
passing over our "protective" straw barrier. I shall spray thecar tyres with disinfectant again and scrub the children's shoes in disinfectant before taking them off, giving them a change of clothes on the doorstep, and washing their hands. Ten minutes later I will go through the entire process again in order to collect our elder daughter from the secondary school bus at the top of our farm lane.

I and my husband, Tim, have run Higher Hacknell Farm in north Devon for 15 years, the past 10 as an organic farm.  Our flock of 350 ewes and pedigree herd of 40 South Devon suckler cows are fed on organic corn grown on the farm. Are we being paranoid or should we take precautions even further? Some farmers are taking their children out of school and undergoing a complete siege with no contact with the outside world at all, while others can't even get hold of any disinfectant.

Every livestock farmer in the country is in the same position, wondering what to do and feeling
helpless. Could this be the crisis that ends it all? Like all farmers, we stand to lose everything we have worked for if our farm becomes infected with foot and mouth. Will government compensation take the higher value of organic stock into consideration, or its pedigree value, the BSE-free status and the years of home breeding? What about the loss of customers who buy our meat because they know where and how it has been reared? Organic farming is more about practical common sense and sound principles than weird and wacky philosophy. It has stood us in good stead through the years of crisis. Having not fed blood and bonemeal or used organophosphates, which are not allowed under organic regulations, we were able to avoid the problems of BSE. When people reacted against the threat of GM food, again organic standards were on our side, and our produce was free of them. But what about foot and mouth?

There are no organic halos to protect us this time. It could be said that in every crisis there is an opportunity, and this is the moment to think about where our food comes from and how it is produced. What should farming be about? Is it only a means to produce food, a commodity to be manufactured and traded globally at the cheapest price? Or are there wider implications to consider: the fact that farming occupies more land than any other industry and as such must care for the environment? That animal welfare has a cost which is not reflected in the price of a "value burger"? That farmingis crucial for healthy local economies? That cheap food has a price, and the cost of pollution, environmental degradation and diseases such as BSE has been conservatively estimated at pounds 2.3bn annually?

Organic farming, though not perfect, comes closest to being a sustainable solution. Organic standards embrace all aspects of food production. They discourage the "dealing" system, which has caused the current foot and mouth epidemic to spread so rapidly. Closed flocks and herds are recommended. Non- organic stock can be brought in only for breeding replacement purposes as young animals, and must have BSE-free status. There are limits on journey time, and putting animals through markets is not allowed.

This crisis raises issues that the Soil Association has long been campaigning for: localised versus globalised food economies. We are able to sell our meat direct to our> customers which helps us but also offers the customer complete traceability, the knowledge of where and how their food is produced. We are reliant on a small abattoir a few miles away and a local butcher. We all need and support each other. One cannot survive without the other. A truly sustainable future for British farming will only be possible when we begin to understand what our food costs.

Why pay for the negative impact of clearing up the environment? Why not pay instead for positive environmental benefits? If this does not happen, nature will continue to exact its revenge in ways with which we are becoming all too familiar.

Higher Hacknell: 01769 560909;
       LIKE THIS by Rose Prince - The Independent (London) 4 March 2001

Rose Prince BODY: In a leading article last week we blamed cheap food policies for the crisis in Britain's farming, a theme taken up by Tony Blair. Yesterday the Agriculture Minister Nick Brown invited alternative views on where we go from here. We respond by looking at four key areas.

With an average of 70 per cent of British meat sold via supermarkets, the distribution of animals and meat has had a significant effect on the spread of foot and mouth disease. The clearest indicator is to compare maps showing the spread of foot and mouth in 1967 and now, when the> distribution of the disease is much wider.

Supermarkets were far smaller businesses in 1967; now they are an industry of giants, with five of them holding the buying power that has drastically changed the way our food is distributed. Their promise to deliver meat at a very low price is extremely demanding on the supply line. Long-haul
distribution is taken for granted, and no distance is seen as too far to transport an animal. But it's cheap. It is said that you can deliver a meal for four from farm to plate for 10p. We now have the anomaly where an animal can travel 200 miles to slaughter, the carcass a further 100 miles for cutting, then to a holding place and finally back to a store near the field where the animal was reared.

Supermarkets either use meat suppliers whose agents travel the country, buying animals at auction or from farms - or they buy direct from the farmers. Supermarkets insist that their meat suppliers slaughter animals at the "dedicated" abattoir of their choice. Tesco, for example, financed much of the building of, and depend upon, St Merryn Meat, a large abattoir in Cornwall.

One Sussex farmer was approached by Tesco to sell his beef. He was willing to doso until they insisted that the livestock travel to St Merryn for slaughter. He had always used a local abattoir 10 miles from his farm, with a very high standard of hygiene and animal welfare. There, the animals are rested after their short journey in the afternoon and killed at dawn the next day before properly awake. "I shuddered at the thought of my animals travelling all the way to Cornwall in a dirty lorry," he said. He still will not sell to supermarkets. The supermarkets insist that using dedicated abattoirs guarantees food safety - but all abattoirs are inspected to the same standards for hygiene, and rogue outfits are rare. The use of dedicated abattoirs has more to do with chasing higher profits.

The organic sector, in particular, finds it difficult to meet the demands of meat buyers. Consequently much organic supermarket meat is sourced abroad. Supermarket buyers say they cannot find enough British organic meat, but in fact the farmers are not interested in supplying them, and particularly dislike their system of carting animals long distances to "dedicated" abattoirs.

This uniformity is the enemy of organic and small-scale animal husbandry. It is telling that the abattoir in Essex where the virus was first identified slaughters 60 per cent of the sows in the UK.

The idea that supermarkets could buy animals locally, process them locally and sell them in the nearest branch is derided as impractical. But Somerfield, the smallest of the big five, has successfully started such a scheme and has seen a dramatic rise in sales of locally produced meat, to 15 per cent of the total.

The tragedy of the foot and mouth disease outbreak may well turn customers away from much-travelled meat, and hopefully turn the supermarkets away from globalisation.

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