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Unholy mess: Britain should take lessons from India on how to deal with the problem of foot and mouth disease, argues Vandana

April 4, 2001 The Guardian by Vandana Shiva
In Britain, we see the army mobilised to kill a million or more farm animals and bury them in mass graves merely because of a suspicion that they might be carrying a disease that is neither fatal to humans nor animals. In India, the cow is held sacred, and from my philosophical and religious perspective, parallels can be drawn with ethnic cleansing in Serbia and the blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan. This war against farm animals reflects the insanity of those who promote globalised, industrialised food systems which create, promote and spread disease, but who simultaneously want a "disease free national herd".

This zero tolerance for disease has led to a zero tolerance for animals. Farm animals and farmers have been made the "endemic" enemy. The countryside has been turned into a war zone. Just as the silent Buddhas had to be demolished for a false sense of security and pride by the Taliban, so our hoofed neighbours are being slaughtered and burnt for a false sense of security and safety by the British government. Animals are killed on the basis of unjustified exaggeration of the impact of foot and mouth disease, which has been called a "fearful plague", "a demon", "a serial killer" and a predator at large.

But, as we know, FMD is actually quite harmless, though highly contagious. It does not harm humans [common misconception--BSE coordinator], and it only rarely kills animals. The virus takes a toll on productivity, but not generally of life. The disease lowers milk production and reduces the working ability of animals. In a month they recover. Animals can, however, die of other diseases like haemorrhagic septicaemia when their immunity has been lowered by FMD. In India, 400 animals have died in the past couple of months not of FMD but haemorrhagic septicaemia, which infects the throat and blocks the respiratory tract.

FMD is endemic to India, and used to be in Europe. It has been traditionally treated through indigenous veterinary medicine. Vaccines are also available and have been used. Nowhere in the world have entire herds been exterminated.

In India, we hold cattle sacred, because without them we could not renew our soil fertility.

Ecologically, the cow has been central to Indian civilisation. Both materially and conceptually, Indian agriculture has built its sustainability on maintaining the integrity of the cow, considering her inviolable and sacred, seeing her as the mother of the prosperity of food systems.

The integration of livestock with farming has been the secret of sustainable agriculture. Livestock perform a critical function in the food chain by converting organic matter into a form that can be easily used by plants. Can you imagine a British agricultural minister saying, as KM Munshi, India's first agriculture minister after independence, did: "The mother cow and the Nandi are not worshipped in vain. They are the primeval agents who enrich the soil -nature's great land transformers - who supply organic matter which, after treatment, becomes nutrient matter of the greatest importance. In India, tradition, religious sentiment and economic needs have tried to maintain a cattle population large enough to maintain the cycle, only if we know it."

The sanctity of the cow as a source of prosperity in agriculture was linked to the need for conserving its integration with crop production. By using crop wastes and uncultivated land, indigenous cattle do not compete with man for food; rather, they provide organic fertiliser for fields and thus enhance food productivity. Within the sacredness of the cow therefore, lies this ecological rationale and conservation imperative.

There are three aspects to the reaction of the FMD epidemic that make me terribly uneasy.

First, while it is clear that globalisation of trade and increased movement of animals has spread the disease, the UK government continues to support increased liberalisation of agricultural trade in the World Trade Organisation. The half million livestock being killed are a ritual sacrifice to the gods of global markets. Shutting the countryside down while keeping borders open to trade will not prevent spread of disease - either coming in through imports or going out through exports.

Second, the export obsession that is an intrinsic part of globalisation also leads to a blindness to the welfare of animals and farmers. Thousands of livestock can be annihilated, hundreds of farmers ruined to maintain the "vaccine free" status of exports. Neither the farmers nor farm animals count in the calculus of free trade. That is why farmers are committing suicide in thousands in India, and animals are being killed in thousands in the UK.

Third, the same agencies that refuse to act in the public interest on issues of food safety related to GMOs are willing to cull farm animals infected by a non-fatal disease.

These are double standards. On the basis of the precautionary principle, the UK government should ban GMOs instead of killing harmless animals if it is concerned about safety of food and agriculture.

The crisis in the UK should make us all think more seriously about globalisation of food and agriculture. We need to explore what is the most reliable way to produce safe food, protect human and animal health, build immunity and resilience in our farming. The crisis needs a systems response, not military operations.

The problem is not the occurrence of disease and infection, but vulnerability to it. The very idea of disease-free animals and disease-free people fuels the appetite for genetic engineering. It decreases our levels of tolerance and resilience. It breeds fear, anxiety and paranoia - the kind of fear that is moving the military might of Britain to declare a war against its hoofed inhabitants.

This paranoia suits the genetic engineering industry perfectly. By exterminating farm animals, the option of small organic farms is eroded. By creating a fear of disease, a new market is created for Dolly, and Polly and Tracy and all their clones.

We should stop this war against farm animals. Without them we will never be able to build a sustainable farming future.

Dr Vandana Shiva, a physicist and ecologist, has in India established Navdanya, a movement for biodiversity conservation and farmers' rights.


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