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Keeping British Agriculture Sustainable
Jim Johnson


Recent news has indicated that foot-and-mouth may not be as close to eradication as the government had previously thought. The number of new outbreaks peaked on March 30 at 61 and since then has gradually declined to zero. That was until May 22, when 16 more farms in North Yorkshire were identified as infected. Such an increase is alarming; this number of cases could indicate the beginnings of an epidemic equal in scale to the one in Cumbria. The farming community will take a very dim view if this was a result of a relaxation in control measures while the government’s attention was elsewhere.

Tony Blair’s decision to call a general election has angered many in the farming community. Incensed by what they see as a needless and damaging diversion of government time and resources, Farmers Weekly denounced it as an act of betrayal. They suggested that Blair should be made to pay a heavy price on June 7. ‘We have a long and jealously guarded tradition of non-Party political affiliation,’ they state. But if there is a resurgence of the disease, ‘because science was sacrificed to spin’, then they are prepared to break from this custom.

This interview with a Sussex farmer was conducted just before the news of the possible foot-and-mouth resurgence had hit the headlines. Daniel Van Duyne farms 150 acres, with some 250 breeding ewes and a small suckler herd of Charolais-cross BSE free cattle. The farm is FABBL approved (farm assured) and due to the closure of local markets all lambs are sold on contract. With the farming community going through such a tough time, what were his opinions on the forthcoming election?

Van Duyne was very critical of the way the government has handled the foot-and-mouth situation. ‘There was a lack of an immediate response to the crisis. Reports from farmers say there was confusion during the slaughter process from vets and MAFF officials as to what was required from them. I think the disease was allowed to spread too quickly in the early stages and enough wasn’t done to stop this. Not enough information was given to farmers till late on in the crisis. There was a general perception that all farmers had access to the Internet and the information was out there.’

He did, however, agree with the strategy of onsite burial where appropriate and the decision to slaughter rather than vaccinate. ‘Our export markets and disease free status are important for us, but I’m sure I would not be so positive of this move if it was my healthy sheep facing slaughter because we were adjacent to an infected farm. You may argue that having a foot-and-mouth disease free status will not aid exports anyway - we have eradicated BSE yet do we still have the market for beef that we used to? No.’

Their Sussex farm has been lucky. ‘We are in a disease free area with no reported cases. We are in a fortunate position where all livestock are kept on a single holding and there has been no need for movement documentation. There will be a need for movement licenses soon as lambs go for slaughter, but as they are going straight to slaughter [the licenses] are not as strict.

On the decision to hold the election in June, Mr. Van Duyne thought that it needed to be called but said that Blair should have allowed more time to monitor the spread of the disease. And to assess what affect it would have on those in rural locations who will want to vote. If movement restrictions are in place on June 7 then it could be difficult for some to get to the polling stations.

Now that we have been reminded of the terrible consequences of a foot-and-mouth outbreak, one of the most important things to consider is what can be done to prevent a repeat of the situation. ‘We are an island. We are in a position to control what enters and leaves our country perhaps more than others. I would like to see an American style immigration system, where thorough checks are carried out on all food goods entering our country. This, however, is useless when you look at food companies, who, under free trade laws, are bringing in meat products from all parts of the world.’

Foot-and-mouth obviously dominates the thoughts of those in the farming community at the moment. But what about other important issues? How does this government’s record on agriculture compare with previous Tory ones? ‘This government is out of touch with both farmers and those involved with rural work. In terms of Europe, I think both governments have been weak; when you consider the role the Tory government played in the initial BSE outbreak. The Labour government has also affected farmers in other ways and intends to do so further.’

‘Farmers want to farm their land in peace, improve it and be proud of it. They are under constant pressure not only from increasing legislation but also from growing public and land use issues.’ In particular, many farmers are worried about the recent introduction of the right-to-roam bill. It allows the public to have more access to privately owned land. ‘Farms can be dangerous places, yet it is the farmer who is responsible should children or ramblers suffer injury in the farmyard.’

Greater public freedom in the countryside may also pose a security risk to farms by allowing criminals better access to isolated properties. Van Duyne’s Sussex farm is currently not affected by this new legislation as it applies mainly to upland areas. Nevertheless he is very concerned about the problem of crime. ‘Rural crime has soared. We have seen, as in many areas, the loss of the rural policeman.’

The bookies give Labour odds of 1-66 to win the election, making them huge favourites. The Conservatives come in at 12-1 and the Liberals would be a great each way bet at 300-1 if only they paid out for places in this race. The odds are based on opinion polls that suggest the election is already won. But whichever Party is running the country after June 7 will need to address several problems facing Britain’s rural community. ‘They need to promote the value of our home produced food. Our knowledge and standards of farming are high. Our hygiene, husbandry and abattoir conditions are the highest in Europe. We need a voice in Europe to show the quality of our product and to secure markets.’

Due to the difficulty of making a living out of farming, many farmers are choosing to diversify. This means moving away from agriculture and using their land for other purposes such as leisure or tourism. ‘Not all farms are suited to diversification; those that are face new and unseen taxes as they make increased profits from other enterprises. Those that have no such options want a market for their produce and more independence as a nation.’

So what then can be done to improve the market for home produce? ‘Legislation can be good as a guarantee of our product. In the case of BSE we have shown that the five main control measures are working and cases have fallen. However, there is increased legislation direct from Europe that needs to be simplified and at times seems unnecessary.’

That brings us to the subject of Europe, an issue on which the Conservatives especially are strongly campaigning. ‘I think Britain is a key player in Europe, and the European market is important for us. But the French and German farmers obviously carry more weight in their respective countries, receiving extra money on top of the standard subsidy. I think we need Europe for trade but can still trade quite freely without the disadvantages of being a member state.’ On the issue of a single currency, Mr. Van Duyne said that it would be the timing of joining the euro that would be the critical factor.

Finally, we talked about how optimistic he was for the future of British farming and about his long-term outlook for his own career. ‘I like my work, the longer you work a particular area of land the more you become attached to it and protective of it. I would like to continue farming, it just depends on not only the market but the pressures I have to face in the local area - increased housing, increased public use of footpaths and pressures from the public as to what you are doing on your land, which are becoming increasingly common. The majority of farmers aren’t out to destroy things, after all, they live there and that is their work place but we are under increasing complaints from a growing rural population every time we go out to do something.’

‘Sadly farming is turning into more of a contract scheme with fewer abattoirs and less local trade. With food companies having freedom of trade and searching for the best deal I see no reason why cheap imports shouldn’t continue and who knows, in years to come, we will see almost global super farms supplying our needs, and our own countryside used as a mere playground. You only need look at the convenience a large supermarket provides - a one-stop shop. I think the whole food industry will take on this shape: bigger more efficient farms, maybe not even in this country, supplying on contract to the terms of the supermarkets.’

Such a vision for the future of British farming is very bleak indeed. Agriculture has shaped the countryside around us for centuries but fields, hedgerows and trees would disappear if they were no longer required. The present rural workforce would become providers of leisure facilities instead of farmers. Spare a thought also for the quality and safety of our food and for the welfare of livestock. As Mr. Van Duyne mentioned, we have some of the best standards of food production in the world. Who would be given responsibility for policing these ‘global super farms’? In the drive towards greater efficiency it is unlikely that such standards would be maintained.

©Jim Johnson 2001

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