Paying the Price of Progress
Printer Friendly Version
E-Mail This Article
The Food 'Revolution'
Paying the Price of Progress
Critics say factory farms and freer trade in food are behind the spread of animal diseases in Britain
by Olivia Ward
LONDON - A ``FOOD revolution'' with roots stretching back 50 years is one of the major reasons cited for what many here believe is a crisis in British farming.
The revolution has turned the British market into the most open and free-trade oriented in Europe, one that has the longest experience of being supplied with food from abroad, according to Professor Tim Lang, director of the Centre for Food Policy at Thames Valley University.
But following the epidemics caused by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease, and now foot-and-mouth disease, some observers are calling into question the British food production industry.
The country has a highly concentrated food industry, with 15 of the 25 largest food companies in Europe in British hands. It created a huge processing industry after World War II to feed working people in faster and cheaper ways.
``It's actually a food revolution,'' says Lang.
But alongside increasing centralization came big agribusiness and the edging out of small farmers.
In the 1930s, 15 per cent of the population was employed in some form of farming. Now, the number has plummeted to 2 per cent. Agriculture itself contributes only 2 per cent of the country's gross domestic product.
Accelerated by Europe's Common Agricultural Policy, which is aimed at increasing production, the strongest trend in British agriculture since the war has been ``factory farming,'' the stepping-up of animal and poultry production to meet bottom-line expectations. For some producers, it's a matter of profit; for others, survival.
But the BSE crisis started some European officials wondering if the philosophy had not gone too far, too fast, and they called for policy reform.
``Can we really go on claiming that BSE is an accident of nature?'' asked European Commission president Jacques Santer. ``Is it not actually the consequence of a model of agricultural production that pushes productivity at whatever cost?''
But according to the National Farmers' Union, foot-and-mouth disease, which is ravaging Britain and Europe, is more widespread in countries with traditional farming methods than in the production-oriented West.
``The spread of the current strain of (the disease) is more to do with higher levels of international trade and movement of people than agriculture,'' the union said in a statement.
``Our evidence shows, from investigations of farms, that in nine out of 10 cases they are massive, intensive farms that cause problems,'' says Martin Coutts, a leading British animal welfare activist.
``When you have huge numbers together, you can't monitor them,'' Coutts says. ``One person is usually trying to monitor thousands of animals. How do you find a turkey with a broken leg? Smaller farmers usually have to take greater care of their animals, because they stand to lose too much by neglecting them.''
But the defenders of the centralized system insist it has made a strong, positive contribution, helping Britons eat better and enjoy plentiful choice for less money.
``In 1970, the average household spent 26 per cent of its income on food and the equivalent figure today is around 15 per cent,'' according to Sean Rickard, a farm economics expert and co-author of the government's policy on agriculture and rural economy.
``This is a very real benefit, particularly for those households where incomes are low. It is not good enough for affluent commentators to declare that people should be forced to pay more for food,'' he told the London-based Prospect magazine.
While the cheap-food formula favoured big farmers, it put enormous pressure on smaller ones. In spite of European subsidies, more than 300,000 have gone out of business since the end of World War II.
To save money, the supermarkets cut the number of farms they bought from and drove down prices they paid to their suppliers. The globalization of the market also forced British farmers to compete with overseas producers selling at cheaper rates.
To survive, many farmers changed their traditional tactics. They became more like market traders who sell animals wherever they can make the best profit quickly.
But the resulting movement of animals made the recent foot-and-mouth outbreak much more swift and deadly than the last one in 1967.
``Agriculture is a very different business,'' says Richard Young, policy adviser to the Soil Association of organic farmers. ``Nowadays, people use mobile phones to find out where the best and the lowest prices are. Then they'll buy animals from a low market and ship to a higher paying one where they're doing very strong trade. It's like the stock market.''
Middlemen have also sprung up, putting farmers in touch with markets. Many deals are done outside auctions and there are rumours of smuggling and illegal dealing in a minority of cases.
The closing of local abattoirs has also helped to spread disease, some experts claim. Ironically, the move was sparked by tightening of rules to improve food safety standards.
``The government blames the European Union for regulations requiring that all member states have slaughterhouses upgraded to EU standards,'' says Young. ``The smaller ones couldn't bear the costs, so they closed. Over the last 20 years, we lost about 1,000 abattoirs. That means animals have to travel longer distances to slaughter, sometimes in very poor conditions that can spread disease.''
Some officials disagree that the new regulations have lowered standards and they argue that outbreaks of foot-and-mouth have occurred throughout history, far earlier than the new concentrated farming.
But there is no question that animals move around much more quickly than they ever did and the current difficulty in tracing and intercepting infected animals that may show no symptoms was made worse by the new phenomenon.
Although the rapid movements and inter-mixing of animal species on farms and in transit may make it impossible to pinpoint exactly what was to blame for the outbreak, there is little doubt about why it has spread like a brush fire.
``Infected sheep have been crisscrossing the country,'' says Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, adding that one of the key differences between the current outbreak of foot-and-mouth and the last one is ``the speed and geographical scale'' of the movements.
Brown has called for a 20-day ``standstill'' period that would keep sheep in one place for three weeks after purchase, making tracking potentially infected animals easier in the future. Sheep are considered the most dangerous carriers because they show few symptoms in the early stages.
But experts say that as long as the system is in place, with heavy emphasis on producing meat for export to Europe and other countries, it's unlikely the whirlwind progress of livestock across Britain will slow down.
``As one of the EU states, we signed on to the 1986 Single European Act that swept away inspection,'' says Lang. ``The idea was that goods and trade must speed up and go through borders without inspection. Opposing that meant approving the `nanny state,' in Margaret Thatcher's terms. The new priority was improving and maximizing trade.''
Although globalization of trade has brought down prices at the supermarket, other costs are hidden.
These, Lang says, include the money spent on fuel to transport livestock and raw and processed goods across hundreds of kilometres and the increased gasoline bills of consumers who go to suburban supermarkets instead of local shops.
The availability of cheap processed food, too, has lowered nutrition, some studies have shown, with a growing tendency to obesity that costs the British economy the equivalent of $24 billion a year in treating diet-related diseases. There are also environmental costs from industrially related pollution and misuse of land.
``The answer is that food should be grown as close as possible to home,'' says Lang. ``The future of the food economy must be to bio-regionalize. If you want to eat mangoes in northern Canada, you should pay the full environmental cost and the cost of full inspection.''
The new popularity of urban farmers' markets, organic food stores and farm co-ops is evidence of the worries Britons are experiencing over food safety and quality.
But it's doubtful the young generation of food shoppers, who have grown up on kiwi fruit and 20 varieties of potato chips available at the local supermarket, would want to regress to pre-war choices on the shelves of small corner stores.
Lifestyle changes, too, have meant most women work outside the home even when raising children and have little time for old-fashioned cooking. Families eat together less often and children with two working parents get used to heating ready-made food or buying a slice of pizza.
Britons now consider ``exotic'' foods to be part of their normal diet. Curry is the Number 1 favourite, replacing the traditional fish and chips.
Apart from inevitably tighter controls, the ultimate results of the foot-and-mouth epidemic on the future of British agriculture, food safety and public health is still unknown. Some critics are calling for a more integrated approach that will take all these vital factors into account, rather than viewing food production from an economic perspective only.
But one change could be an even greater concentration of food production in fewer hands, as traumatized farmers take their compensation cheques as a retirement package and leave the field.
On the other hand, the deadly disease may also breathe new life into concepts that environmentalists have pointed to as the way of the future.
``There is a groundswell of thinking that sustainable agriculture warrants more than a token niche,'' says Lang.
``It's a shift of thinking at the highest level. Because of the crisis, (Prime Minister Tony Blair) is having to give agriculture his highest priority.
``Now, he can see it's infinitely more complex than the big business advisers have told him. People who were considered woolly thinkers are being proved right. That's a sea change.''
``It doesn't mean fundamental change will occur, and there are still deeply embedded vested interests that can't be easily overcome. But it's at least a hopeful start.''
Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited