Farming at crossroads after foot-and-mouth

February 20, 2002 Financial Times (London) by John Mason
One year ago today foot-and-mouth disease was confirmed in animals at an abattoir in Essex. It was to prove to be the start of the world's worst ever outbreak of the disease. The months that followed saw the slaughter of 6m animals and the British economy take a hit estimated at Pounds 10bn.

The epidemic also had a deep impact beyond Britain. Throughout continental Europe farmers and agriculture ministers recognised that the "type O" strain of the virus could just as easily have struck them. The Continent was to have the luckiest of escapes. The disease was exported on a small scale to the Netherlands. The authorities there contained it - but only just.

Now, the epidemic appears to be over. With no new cases since September 30, restrictions on animal movements have been largely lifted. Livestock markets are re-opening. Bans on exports have been lifted. The recovery has begun but the crisis has left a permanent legacy.

On the more than 10,000 farms directly hit, animals are being slowly restocked. More than 1,000 farmers have put in place "sentinel" animals to check for lingering infection. The bulk of restocking should take place later this month and throughout the spring.

To the National Farmers' Union, this is encouraging. Ben Gill, NFU president, said: "The FMD outbreak has demonstrated British farmers' amazing resilience and ability to fight back from what has been a catastrophic situation."

Farmers who were compensated for their stock being slaughtered are, economically, the lucky ones. Those who suffered most were farmers whose animals were trapped on farms, unable to be sold, yet still needing to be fed. Such farmers received no compensation and are still relying on the sympathy of bank managers for their survival.

The NFU and government have forecast that about 10 per cent of farmers affected by the virus will leave the industry. However, Barclays Bank has said the initial signs suggest a more encouraging outcome with maybe only 5 per cent quitting.

Those who remain will find themselves in an industry changed by the crisis. The sight of pyres burning up and down the countryside has made a slaughter policy - the traditional weapon to defend the European Union's treasured "disease-free status" - politically difficult to apply again. Across Europe the need to find an enhanced role for vaccination is now largely agreed. But the "golden bullet" - a single shot vaccine that protects animals for life against all strains of the disease - is a long way off.

One possible view of the future has been provided by the Danish farmers' union. It is urging its British counterparts to adopt a "fortress" approach that would fundamentally change the industry and countryside. Livestock markets should be completely shut and animals sold over the internet or using video technology.

However, the foot-and-mouth crisis has had less impact on farming than the continuing economic fundamentals such as the strength of the pound against the euro and the liberalising agenda of the World Trade Organisation.

As Sir Don Curry's commission on the future of farming reported last month, it is these factors that will reshape farming most. The report, which was widely welcomed, accepts that farming may play a diminished - but critical - role in the future. The tourist and food industries depend upon agriculture surviving on a sufficient scale, it said. Its main recommendation was for Britain to accelerate the substitution of production subsidies with payments for agri- environmental schemes.

Its other recommendations are intended to reconnect the farmer with consumers and to improve supply chain efficiencies to give farmers more of the "retail pound".

Margaret Beckett, the environment and agriculture secretary, will unveil her response to the Curry report this summer. It is expected to be largely supportive.

The alternative, everyone from Mrs Beckett to the NFU agrees, is in effect to pass responsibility for farming and the rural economy as a whole to the large food companies such as Unilever, J. Sainsbury and Tesco. This is a thought that makes executives in these companies groan in horror, along with everybody else.

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