Volume 14 Number 4
Time for a Rethink in Agriculture
01 August 2001

Patrick Evans has farmed for most of his life in Herefordshire, UK.

The British government’s immediate reaction to the foot and mouth epidemic—‘to close down the countryside’—highlighted for many the value of our agricultural areas. Some saw the potential billions of pounds lost to tourism, others the end of recreation and the chance to renew their spirit. Everyone immediately began to feel involved, although little mention of agriculture was made during the general election.

Most of the British landscape is shaped by farming and, contrary to popular belief, the changes in technology, which have led us to larger and more mechanized farms, have not extinguished the farmer’s feeling for Creation. A French colleague ended his e-mail at the outbreak of foot and mouth: ‘We are praying that British farmers do not lose faith in their calling.’ And a Northumberland victim of the disease ended an article in The Independent with the conviction that farmers would need all the vision and passion they could muster to shape the new course which he clearly felt to be their responsibility.

It is too early to know what a public enquiry may reveal about the cause of the epidemic and the execution of the strategy adopted to contain it. But it is clear that the infection was identified very late, and had been widely spread through movements of sheep which are the species least visibly affected. Yet the sheer scale of the spread, and the logistical problems posed by a slaughter policy, led me and many others to favour an attempt at containment through a limited vaccination policy.

It has to be recognized however that expert opinion was divided on this issue, with perhaps the weight of it dubious if not completely opposed. Experience with the vaccine had evidently given variable results in other countries, but this could have been a valuable chance to gain knowledge of its use, and maybe advance the research which is continuously under way. Perhaps the Dutch experience of using the vaccine will help.

Meanwhile the sheer scale of the slaughter, shown nightly on TV, had a paralysing and depressing effect. Those who felt that for farmers it was merely a financial crisis, and wrote off their anguish, were badly mistaken. Tears overcame people when words failed. One local farmer’s wife likened the experience to a family bereavement. Farmers in our village who had shared a common disaster began to get together for breakfast in the local pub. At first it was mainly to commiserate, but then talk turned to the future and ways in which they might be able to work together. It remains to be seen how significant such a step will prove, but farming solidarity is very much alive.

The regional Lleyn Sheep Breeders Club proposed that each of its members should give a ewe lamb to those who had had flocks wiped out and wished to restart. Not only farmers but the greater part of the nation want to see this family farming spirit continue. It is at the heart of communities which work and stick together.

It is certainly time to question the promotion of cheap food, and some of the procedures which have been accepted in the name of efficiency. Accountability and transparency are already being pushed to the top of the agenda in the food industry, and the new UK Food Standards Agency has now to prove itself. Governments have to accept that an unregulated market economy is unable to prevent unforeseen risks to health, and that enforceable standards must be laid down in law.

Much is written about the high level of subsidies going into farming. But a recent university study showed that the farmer receives only 9p of every pound spent in a supermarket. According to government statistics, in 1998/9 over 80 per cent of UK farmers had a total income below £20,000 (the current national average wage). Only one per cent topped £100,000. This income must provide both for families and re-investment. Clearly the government should show more imagination in filling out its call for farmers to diversify. Too little has been done to ease the progress of renewable energy through bio-diesel (rapeseed oil), and other crops for industrial purposes. Science still has many possibilities to offer in using every acre effectively.

Genetic modification is only one of the choices biotechnology may offer in current developments—bio fertilizers, bio pesticides, vermiculture, aquaculture and so on. But as Prof M S Swaminathan, the internationally known agricultural scientist, has said, ‘We have to marry ethics with economics and technology. The technological push must be matched by an ethical pull. If you don’t have these two matching each other, then you can’t make sustainable progress.’

In The Century of the gene, Helen Fox Keller comments on the charting of the human genome: ‘There is a huge gap between genetic information and biological meaning. It is a rare and wonderful moment when success teaches us humility.’

Farmers are all too aware of the constant vigilance needed in livestock farming, but foot and mouth has been a massive blow to confidence and morale. Coming on top of BSE it has shaken faith in the accepted ways, and in the ability of scientists to give a clear lead. But most farmers are determined to rebuild, and hope to play a part in shaping a new deal. They know it will be a long haul, and are conscious of the need both to understand and be understood.

It would be a great thing if government ministers could take time now to share and discuss any new thinking in village meetings.

The flock of pedigree Lleyn sheep which Patrick Evans first established on his family farm in Herefordshire in the 1970s was culled because of foot and mouth disease this March. His book, ‘Farming for ever’ is published by Sapey Press, Haytons, Whitbourne, Worcester WR6 5ST, UK.
Patrick Evans

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