LONDON - The wildfire spread of Britain's foot-and-mouth outbreak has been accelerated by modern animal husbandry practices and the globalisation of the agriculture industry, experts said Wednesday.
Intensive farming, agricultural efficiency and a livestock life cycle that often requires long-distance transportation of live creatures has increased the rapid dispersion of the highly infectious virus currently ravaging some 30 sites in Britain and Northern Ireland, they said.
Some experts and politicians even expressed hopes that the current nine-day crisis, which has brought British farming to a standstill, could provoke a radical rethink in the big-is-beautiful methods of modern agri-business.
The Irish Army, left, and the Irish Police check vechicles at a checkpoint in the Republic of Ireland at the border crossing close to the village of Meigh, Northern Ireland which has had a outbreak of foot-and-mouth Thursday, March 1, 2001. The Irish police have set checkpoints at every road that leads into Northern Ireland following the recent outbreak of the foot-and-mouth disease in the Britain. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
"The only good thing that could have come out of this is that the British government which has been deeply committed to the efficiency-intensification model of agriculture might now begin to question that," said Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University.
"What we have done is create an agricultural desert of big intensive farming," Lang told AFP. "Bigger companies bigger farms, more pressure on farmers to produce more for less -- all of this has contributed to the rapid dispersion of the virus."
The agriculture business has undergone radical change in the past generation, due to the demand for ever cheaper food and the acceleration of the single European market and international trade.
The days are long gone when local farmers reared livestock for slaughter at rural abattoirs to supply food retailers in the region.
In the past 10 years, the number of farms in Britain has dwindled by 25 percent to some 160,000. Now animals can travel hundreds of miles from farm to market to farm to holding centre to farm before making the final, usually lengthy, journey to abattoir.
All of which makes it far easier for beasts to contract contagious ailments -- and far harder to check the spread of disease once it takes root.
Politicians have called for an EU-wide shake-up of intensive farming methods as a result of the crisis. Some are concerned in particular over the closure of rural abattoirs which find it hard to compete economically.
"It is a commitment in the Rural White Paper that we will stop the closure of small abattoirs and that is very important," said British agriculture minister Michael Meacher. "On the question of intensive farming, we do need a full scale review."
Conservative MP Damian Green added: "Animals are clearly being transported huge distances in ways that didn't happen in (a previous) 1967 outbreak.
"The effects are now going all over the country much faster, so we do need to look at how we regulate, and the costs the Government imposes on small slaughterhouses," he added.
Some experts are more pragmatic however about the pros and cons of modern agricultural methods.
"It is clear that because of the transportation of animals we help spread the disease," said Francois Ortalo-Magne, a lecturer at the London School of Economics.
"If we lived in a world where we each produced in our own back yard what we eat, we would have less chance of diseases spreading. Would this be a happier world? I don't think so," he said.
"Consumers demand cheap food, we have a system which produces cheap food... but a lot of these foods that industry produce are much cleaner and safer than organic farming," Ortalo-Magne told AFP.
In the meantime, the foot-and-mouth outbreak looks certain to spread to continental Europe and Ireland -- and scientists believe many other countries could be affected.
They say the outbreak is a particularly virulent strain from Asia which reached Europe in 1996.
"There are probably many more countries that are affected, but haven't bothered to report it," said Alex Donaldson, head of the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, Surrey, a leading lab researching foot-and-mouth, in an interview with the New Scientist magazine.