Foot and mouth cure 'was worse than disease':
Government mishandling associated with heavy lobbying by farmers' union led to mistaken priorities, says report

September 25, 2001 The Guardian (London) by Paul Brown
The government's handling of foot and mouth disease, rather than the disease itself, led to economic damage and hardship in rural areas and eventually hit the national economy, according to a report out yesterday.

The decision to close large areas of the countryside - based on outdated government policy, 1950s ministry of agriculture (Maff) thinking and heavy lobbying by the National Farmers Union (NFU) - gave priority to food production and exports instead of tourism and rural businesses, the real money spinners for the affected areas.

Farming accounts for only 2% of the country's gross domestic product and employs only 1.5% of the workforce, one fifth of the total rural economy.

The power and influence of the NFU was not balanced by any comparable rural lobby and much damage was done before the government understood the impact of its policies, says Gregor Hutcheon, acting head of rural policy at the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The government's belated forming of the rural task force, launched to try to save the other businesses hard hit by the measures taken to control foot and mouth, "has been relatively small scale compared with the massive level of activity and compensation targeted at farming".

At last the government had begun to understand its mistake. "It is a tragedy, however, that it has taken such a major threat and possible lasting damage to this asset for its true value to be begin to be recognised," the report says.

Mr Hutcheon said: "Maff and the NFU worked as a team to market a competitive agricultural industry dominated by that perspective, but food production is less important than the draw of the countryside because of its other qualities, beauty and diversity."

Key lessons from the government's handling of the crisis include:

* The beauty, diversity and distinctiveness of the country side are major national assets worth billions of pounds to local and the national economy.

* The public benefits of pastoral farming systems, such as distinctive landscapes and wildlife habitats, in large parts of the countryside far outweigh the market value of its tradable products.

* The branding of many products, from attractive counties such as Derbyshire, add to its value in the shops.

* The environment is a major economic asset in itself. Policies which protect and foster agriculture because of misplaced belief in its economic significance will lead to disproportionate costs elsewhere

Bill Ballard, a member of the Farming and Rural Business Group, said he accepted that while it was important to control foot and mouth "it might not have been sensible to close the countryside so rigorously".

All farmers wanted was the chance to make a living and show a fair profit. "Most farmers would be just as happy being custodians of the countryside rather than collecting subsidies for ever-increasing production. What they would like is some kind of strategic thinking from the government about where farming is going so they can plan five years ahead.

"They are prepared to be radical, and grow herbs and soft fruits if that is what is needed, but it takes time to adapt so it is all about being given a proper lead."

Ian Gardener, deputy director of the NFU, said: "Foot and mouth was an almighty problem, far worse than anyone could have realised, and mistakes were made but we could not let it rip through Britain, it had to be stopped, not least for animal welfare reasons.

"We must now get on with reshaping the rural economy taking into account all that we have learned."

The Department of Environment said: "The Rural Task Force has put pounds 300m into the rural economy to try and help business and promote tourism. It will shortly be reporting on its efforts to revive the countryside after foot and mouth."

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