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Amid Crisis, Britain Losing Faith In Farmers;
Europe: As Nation's Foot-And-Mouth Disease Grows, So Do Doubts About The Industry's Future.

April 4, 2001 Los Angeles Times by Marjorie Miller

British farmers' bitter harvest of foot-and-mouth disease drew heartfelt sympathy from lovers of rural England in the early days of the outbreak. Those noble yeomen on the rebound from the "mad cow" crisis didn't deserve another sucker punch, public sentiment went.

But six weeks later, as the epidemic spirals out of control and the killing fields of Cumbria dominate the evening news, opinion has begun to shift against farmers who "spread disease" and "blackmail us" for government funds.

Bloated carcasses, looming economic losses, election turmoil and the image of a nation in quarantine have turned some of the sympathy to irritation, particularly among urban dwellers. While the government and supermarket chains are held partly to blame, there is also a backlash against farmers photographed "cuddling lambs meant for mint sauce," as one political commentator put it, and disgust over the huge waste of animal lives.

Seventy-five percent of Britain's land is agricultural, but farming employs only 2% of the work force and accounts for about 1% of the country's gross domestic product--a third of what it was in the early 1970s. Farmers received about $ 4.5 billion in subsidies last year, and the government is paying them market value for their slaughtered livestock.

Union Cites Need for Recovery Package

The National Farmers' Union has said that after foot-and-mouth has been contained, a recovery package will be needed to rebuild a devastated industry and recapture lost export markets.

"The Labor government is being held to ransom by livestock farmers much as Tory governments were held to ransom by coal miners," columnist Simon Jenkins wrote in the Times of London last week.

He said that farmers don't want to let foot-and-mouth run its course because that would reduce meat and milk yields. They chose to slaughter hundreds of thousands of animals rather than vaccinate them because inoculations are expensive and will cost them export markets. Many countries, including the U.S., will not accept livestock and meat imports from countries that vaccinate, because it is difficult to distinguish inoculated animals from those carrying the virus.

"This debacle is not about human health, nor about animal welfare," Jenkins said. "This slaughter is no act of God. It is an act of government in thrall to one industry. This is about money, money and more money."

The crisis has prompted a debate about the future of farming in Britain--about whether the country can afford the subsidies that keep farmers afloat and whether the countryside can survive without farmers to take care of it. It has been suggested that farming is a smokestack industry.

"Rubbish," said Nick Utting of the farmers union in Cumbria County in northwestern England. "Farming is still a fundamental industry in this country. It is looking after the countryside. It produces excellent foodstuffs for the people of this country. And we probably get these diseases from foodstuffs coming from outside of this country and Europe."

Farmers have their advocates and allies, of course. The Daily Telegraph newspaper editorialized last week that farmers "are suffering, and they need help, not opprobrium." Farmers union policy director Martin Howarth said donations from average Britons are pouring in.

But columnist Deborah Orr argued in the Independent newspaper that Britons must face up to the fact that the agricultural industry is not economically viable. She said farming is more valuable for the beautiful views it provides for the tourism industry--6% of GDP and 7% of the work force--than for the food it puts on the dinner table.

"Accept that agricultural Britain is not a living industry," she wrote, "but a heritage industry."

Many critics hold U.S-style factory farming methods to blame for the dimensions of the epidemic, and even the government has attacked the growing power of supermarket chains for driving down the price of commodities to the detriment of farmers. Green groups and some consumers have called for more organic food production and high-quality over low-cost foods.

Organic Food Sales Were Already Rising

"Here in Britain, we spend 10% of our disposable income on food, far less than in Italy, Spain, France," said Emma Parkin, a spokeswoman for the Soil Assn., which promotes organic farming. "We don't go for quality--we go for cheapness."

Organic chicken costs about a third more than traditionally raised birds, while organically raised pork can cost twice as much. But even before the foot-and-mouth epidemic, organic food sales in Britain had shot up 55% in the year ended April 2000, according to a Soil Assn. survey. This was a response to "mad cow" disease and the use of genetically modified organisms, hormones and pesticides, the group said.

In supermarkets and national newspapers, some people have called farmers the purveyors of disease. First it was bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE--the scientific term for mad cow--and then it was an E. coli scare in eggs, swine fever in pigs and now a foot-and-mouth epidemic.

After Prince Charles offered $ 750,000 to help stricken farmers, columnist Iain MacWhirter of the Sunday Herald of Scotland remarked that laid-off steelworkers and investors wiped out on the Internet got no such help.

"People who lose their livelihoods in industry or in the technology crash don't hurt any less than farmers, but they get no multimillion-pound packages of emergency state aid," he wrote. "All they can expect from the prime minister are homilies about the painful necessity of change and restructuring. It's only the farmers who get buckets of cash thrown over them whenever something goes wrong."

Some of the talk at a Sainsbury's supermarket in west London echoed that belief. "I don't have much sympathy with the farmers--they are heavily subsidized and have been for years," said economist Tim Walsh, a father of three. "For years, farmers were told about diversification and they didn't listen. Now they're paying for it."

Not everyone is unmoved by the farmers' plight.

"I do tend to be on the side of farmers. I think they are being so pushed," said shopper Deidre Shaw, a psychotherapist. "It's a very emotional subject, and everybody seems to be touched by it. It's about land and heritage that we all feel belongs to us in a way. You don't think of factories in the same emotional way."

Secretary Gill Davidson added, "I don't see how the farmers can survive this."

That's what many farmers are wondering. While critics emphasize the subsidies farmers receive, farmers stress that their incomes fell more than 60% between 1995 and 1999. Hill farmers--the small-scale sheep producers in Cumbria and Wales--earned less than $ 12,000 a year on average in 1998-99, according to an Agriculture Ministry report.

A combination of factors drove down that income, including high interest rates, the pound's strength relative to the dollar and the euro--making British food exports more expensive--and mad cow, which resulted in a three-year, worldwide ban on British beef exports that ended Aug. 1, 1999.

Fewer, Larger Farms Could Be the Trend

And now comes foot-and-mouth, a disease that normally doesn't affect humans but spreads quickly in herds of cloven-footed animals. The export of British livestock, meat and dairy products has been banned, and nearly 800,000 animals have been destroyed or are scheduled for slaughter.

Many of the farmers stricken by the epidemic face an uncertain future. Economists predict a trend similar to the one that followed the mad cow crisis--fewer and larger farms. And a BBC television poll of 244 farmers who lost their herds showed that a quarter of them weren't sure they would restock and continue in the sheep or dairy business.

"For small farmers, it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back," said Stephen Howe, editor of Farmers' Weekly.

He dismissed suggestions by environmentalist groups--and Prince Charles--that the answer is a switch to organic and extensive farming methods, along with a return to local markets. "Diversification and organic farming as viable alternatives is really pie in the sky," he said. "People don't want to pay more for food."

But many farmers and economists disagree. Tourism, horticulture, organic farming and other programs will save the countryside, many say. There will be more large-scale farms, they agree, but they push such ideas as small farms branching out or marketing cooperatively to cut costs. Subsidies should be paid not just to leave land fallow, but to convert to organic farms and turn farmland to woodlands, they say.

"There has to be diversity," said Cumbria farmer Brian Armstrong. "We're still going to need a lot of food to feed people. We have to find a way to get our costs down and prices up--that's the only way to keep people on the land. It's got to pay, or they're not going to stay."

Whether people should stay on the farm is a decision Britons and the government will have to make, added Armstrong's brother Les.

"Either we want agriculture in this country or we don't want agriculture," he said. "If we want it, we have to be prepared to spend money on it."


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