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TIME TO DRAW A LINE UNDER FMD DISASTER

 
09:00 - 27 November 2002
 
 Anthony gibson: 'The outbreak was a watershed, between one era and the
next'

A YEAR on from the official all-clear, and 20 months on from the start
of the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, it is now possible to look back on
what happened with at least the beginnings of a sense of perspective.

We can see, for example, that this was an accident waiting to happen.
When you consider the volumes of meat traded, legally and illegally, on
the world market, the wonder is not that foot and mouth arrived, but
that it didn't get here sooner. If you import meat from around the
world, you must expect to import disease from around the world. That
lesson appears to have been learned, for the time being. Personal
imports of meat have been banned and there is now a semblance of
biosecurity at ports and airports. Whether we shall still be quite so
vigilant at the end of five or ten years of freedom from foot and mouth,
remains to be seen.

We could really do with occasional scares, just to keep us on our toes.
We can also see that the sheer number and speed of sheep movements
around the country carried an obvious risk of spreading, not just foot
and mouth, but almost any disease you care to name. And quite apart from
all of that, the impression which was created of sheep being trucked
around as if they were no better than sacks of coal did no good at all
for the industry's reputation on animal welfare.

From both points of view, it was entirely right that movements should,
to an extent, be regulated. But to what extent? Not, it seems to me, to
the extent of maintaining a 20-day standstill for more than a year after
the final case of the disease in September 2001. Keeping the 20-day
standstill in place, even in the slightly amended form which has applied
since September, has added hugely to the cost and difficulty of
livestock farming, without conferring any real benefit in
disease-control terms. That is because it has missed its target.

The livestock dealers, whose activities it was intended to curtail, have
mostly found ways around it. It has been the small, traditional, mixed
livestock farms, and the auction markets on which they depend, which
have borne the brunt of the unfairness of the 20-day rule, and it is no
wonder that a grassroots revolt seems to be building up a head of steam.
This isn't to argue that we should go back to a complete free for all,
but we must have a regime which is proportionate to the risk. Bad laws
will always be broken or ignored, and that would be the worst of all
worlds. Part of the legacy of foot and mouth is Defra itself. Of course,
MAFF's days were numbered.

The creation of a department of rural affairs had been on the cards for
years. But it was the way in which the handling of the outbreak was
bungled, at both the practical and presentational level, which put the
final nail in the coffin. And while I am sure that the creation of a
department of rural affairs, with a broad-based responsibility for
agriculture and the countryside, was the right thing to do, the fact
that it was done in such a rush has caused nothing but trouble. What
should have been a carefully thought through, intensively managed and
adequately resourced amalgamation, phased over several months, was
instead cobbled together in a matter of a few hours. We have been paying
a heavy price for that - in administrative incompetence and a complete
absence of political vision - ever since.

But not all of the consequences of foot and mouth have been negative. I
doubt, for example, if we would ever have had the Curry Report, or
anything like it, had it not been for the outbreak. And while it may not
be the philosopher's stone, it does set out an agenda which is both
realistic and achievable, always provided that the Government is
prepared to put the resources and political commitment behind it to make
it happen. The messages on that score are mixed. Much will depend on
what the long-awaited "Sustainable Farming and Food Strategy" contains
when it is published in December. But at least there will be a strategy,
and an implementation group to push it through. Without foot and mouth,
I doubt we would have had either.Which brings us to what I hope and
believe will be seen as the real significance of the outbreak, when we
look back not from the perspective of 20 months, but of 20 years. And
that is as a watershed, between one era and the next. You can argue
about whether the foot and mouth outbreak was symptomatic of the
problems which had been building in agriculture over the last two
decades or whether it simply coincided with their coming to a head.

But the fact is that it did occur at a time when farm incomes and
farming morale were touching rock bottom, and did thus reinforce the
feeling that things simply could not get any worse. The only way was up
for the entire industry. That might be dismissed as mere wishful
thinking, were it not for something else to do with FMD, and that is the
way in which it uncovered the seeds of recovery. I am thinking of what
the outbreak demonstrated about the interdependence of the rural
economy, which has been essential in driving the Curry Report, and the
policy-making process generally and of the huge depth of public sympathy
and support it revealed.

Anthony Gibson is the South West regional director for the NFU