Mad Farm Disease

BSE is just one symptom of the insanity governing British agricultural policy

By George Monbiot. Published in the Evening Standard 22nd March 1996.

The chance to annihilate BSE in Britain came ten years ago. In 1986 the government recognized that the disease was caused by feeding cattle on the remains of other farm animals. It banned the practice, but, worried about enormous compensation claims, failed to eliminate the disease from British herds. Instead of searching for signs of infection in cows which did not yet show the symptoms of BSE, vets were instructed to pick out only those already staggering around.

Yet, even then, government officials knew the disease had an incubation period of at least three years. They knew that the proteins which caused it were not confined to the central nervous systems of cows, but could be detected around the gut for at least six months. They knew that infected animals were travelling to the slaughterhouse and passing into the human food chain.

Far from stamping out the disease, they stamped out those who were trying to contain it.
The NHS scientist working on a diagnostic test for BSE was made redundant. Whistle-blowers were marginalized and discredited. It is because of these failures to listen to the warnings that ten people are dead and a whole industry has been brought to its knees.

Cover-ups do neither consumers nor producers any favours. It’s a lesson the Ministry of Agriculture would do well to learn.

Consumer confidence in food production has never been lower, and the reasons are hardly mysterious. There’s a widespread perception that both government and industry are striving to withhold the worst from us, that the implications of pesticide residues in fruit, vegetables and bread, of antibiotics in meat, lindane in milk and dieldrin in chickens are being deliberately obscured.

The crisis of confidence is exacerbated, rather than quelled, every time ministry officials open their mouths. Last year, when carrots were found to contain “unexpectedly high” residues of organophosphates – compounds first developed as nerve gases in the Second World War – the Ministry of Agriculture advised consumers to top and peel them. As the pesticides run right through the carrots, their advice was at best worthless, at worst deceitful.

At least one in every hundred of the vegetables we eat, like those carrots, exceeds the Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) the ministry sets. This shouldn’t alarm us, officials tell us, because MRLs are not intended as “safety limits” and therefore should not “imply a hazard to health.” Yet their confidence seems to be based not on science but on wishful thinking. As the British Medical Association’s Guide to Pesticides, Chemicals and Health tells us, “we do not know whether many pesticides are harmful or not in day to day use.” Uncertainty turns to alarm when we discover that 26 per cent of all the fruit and vegetables we eat contain traces of the poisons farmers use.

Instead of blandishments, we desperately need vision. We need food production in Britain that responds to the demands of consumers, rather than the whims of the petrochemical industry and the battery farming lobby. There is an overwhelming demand for safer food, but in many parts of Britain it is effectively impossible to obtain.

Only 0.3 per cent of the agricultural land in Britain, or 46,000 hectares, is farmed organically, by just 800 farmers. In Austria, by contrast, 12 per cent of the farmland is certified as organic, and the government has a target of 16 per cent by the end of 1996. In the last year alone, 7000 Austrian farmers converted 100,000 hectares to the sort of food production consumers can trust.

It is not a lack of demand that keeps Britain at the bottom of the organic league table in Europe. Where towns have started “box schemes” – in which customers pay in advance for a weekly delivery of whatever a local organic farm can provide – demand so far exceeeds supply that, in some places, waiting lists stretch to years.

What holds producers back is a subsidy system which rewards dangerous and destructive farming while punishing responsible production. No amount of organic onions and consumer-friendly cabbages can match an “arable area payment” of £269 a hectare. By contrast to the £2.2 billion dished out to chemical-intensive farmers in Britain last year, organic producers received a lordly £191,000. With organic farming subsidies set at £70 a hectare, declining to £25 after five years and nothing after that, farmers growing intensive barley or wheat in Britain need be both rich and eccentric to contemplate converting.

It’s not hard to see what has to be done. We must commission some proper research on the possible links between pesticides and diseases such as cancer, ME and infertility. We must cut arable area payments, tighten up both the monitoring and control of what goes into our food and make farmers pay for the pollution of water supplies by pesticides and fertilizers.

But we should be bolder still. We need to put consumers back in touch with producers, by linking farms to the towns and cities they surround. Only when we know where our food comes from and can see for ourselves how it is produced can we be confident that we are not being duped. Above all, both government and industry must stop trying to shield us from the truth. As should have become evident this week, obfuscation and duplicity do no one any favours.