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Never again must we be dictated to by the farming lobby

April 30, 2001 The Independent (London) by Andreas Whittam Smith

NEVER AGAIN. As the foot-and- mouth crisis in farming has wound on these past 10 weeks, and now seems close to ending, I have increasingly found myself thinking how completely out of proportion the whole business has been. In saving farming, a minor and unprofitable activity, we have contrived to ruin a large, profitable industry - tourism.

Never again should the Government be involved on such a scale. It must not do for farmers what they can and should do for themselves. In future, farmers alone should take whatever measures to deal with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease or any other ailment that are within their powers. If they think it best to engage in a culling policy, let them decide the measures for themselves. If they think that vaccination is best, they should get on with it. Government should intervene only if there is a risk to public health. Foot-and-mouth disease is a mild condition affecting livestock. It poses scarcely any risk to human health. Even for animals, it is not in itself a killer disease; it's just like a dose of 'flu. Agriculture is a marginal industry. The rest of us should neither be involved in nor inconvenienced by its troubles.

Never again should a single footpath, national park, tourist attraction or any other rural facility be closed because of an agricultural crisis which poses no risk to the population. Nor should any sporting events be postponed or cancelled. To date, just 1,500 cattle have actually been diagnosed as having the disease. It is for this trifling outbreak that much of the United Kingdom has been declared a no-go area. Can there ever have been a worse example of over-reaction?

Never again should agriculture be given a higher priority than tourism and leisure activities. Holiday makers are more important to the nation than farmers. Tourism adds to the nation's wealth. Farming doesn't; it is largely a loss-making enterprise that the tax payer makes good. The greater part of the cost of dealing with the foot -and-mouth crisis has fallen not on agriculture itself, but on hotels and guest houses, visitor attractions, holiday transport, the souvenir trade, sporting venues and so on. The loss in foreign exchange from absent tourists will be far greater than the loss from agricultural export markets.

Never again should elections, local or otherwise, be postponed because of agricultural events. Perhaps this is the most incredible aspect of the crisis. Until now, the rule has been that only war provides sufficient reason for interfering with our settled constitutional arrangements. The blitz has been equated with 1,500 cattle becoming mildly ill.

Never again should agriculture have its own department. It represents no overwhelming national interest. Important issues of food safety and protection of the environment are handled elsewhere in Whitehall, or can be. If we are going to have a ministry of rural affairs, why not a ministry of urban affairs? There is no more reason to have a Department of Agriculture, or rural affairs, than there is to have a department of gardening.

Never again must the Government elevate a trades union such as the National Farmers Union to a position where it has been given veto rights over government policy. The NFU and others of the species, such as the Police Federation and the British Medical Association, are essential craft unions posing as bodies with wider concerns than the self-interest of their members. But in the same way that David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, will not let educational policy be decided by the teachers' unions, so the Minister of Agriculture should show the NFU the door.

Never again must the prime minister of the day devote a substantial part of his or her energies into handling a minor agricultural crisis. It is a waste of the prime minister's time. What lasting benefit is in prospect from this involvement? One hour on foot-and-mouth disease as compared with one hour on Northern Ireland? There is simply no comparison.

Never again must a single pound be taken from the tax payers' pocket to support the British agricultural industry, other than that which represents an obligation imposed upon us by our membership of the European Union. No benefits to the public good are received in return What are they? Indeed, when the environmental damage caused by intensive farming is taken into account, the result may be perverse. It may well be that the more spent, the more harm that is done.

Never again should farming be provided with protection from the rigours of the market that is not similarly available to other, more significant industries. Farming is simply not important, special or virtuous enough. Whenever ministers think of doing so, they should imagine themselves explaining the decision to the steel workers made redundant the other day in South Wales or to the employees of Motorola in Scotland who are going to lose their jobs. That should be deterrent enough. Never again.


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