Get it right this time

Observations on foot and mouth

News that foot-and-mouth disease had returned to British shores was devastating for farmers. All the talk so far has been about how to learn the scientific lessons of previous outbreaks. But controlling foot-and-mouth is not essentially about science. It's about politics and economics.

That is the inevitable conclusion from an analysis of the government's disastrous handling of the 2001 outbreak, in which up to ten million healthy animals were slaughtered in a "contiguous cull" policy; farmers suffered stress and depression on an unimagined scale, and the British countryside was closed for business. In short, the rural community was brought to its knees.

Though the government tried to block any inquiry into its disastrous handling of the crisis, the European Parliament went ahead and established a committee of inquiry to investigate.

As the inquiry's vice-president, I wanted to find answers to one question in particular: why was a disease, that does no permanent harm to human beings and from which most animals recover in a matter of weeks, allowed to shut down the countryside and cripple our tourist industry?

Why was vaccination disregarded in favour of massive slaughter of healthy animals?

The answer is international trade. In order to protect the export trade, worth around £630 million a year, the government was willing to see losses of up to £20 billion to the wider rural economy. A policy based on ring vaccination rather than slaughter was rejected because countries that adopted it had to wait longer to regain "disease-free" export status.

The inquiry concluded that this must not be allowed to happen again, and that in future outbreaks ring vaccination should be prioritised over slaughter. In addition, the government must consider the impact of policy on smaller farmers and the wider rural community, both of which suffered enormously at the hands of decisions made primarily to protect meat exports for the food multinationals.

We also called for the government to spend more money, more quickly, to make decisions more locally, and to consult and work more closely with farmers and affected communities. Compensation schemes have to be fairer, and also help farmers and rural businesses indirectly affected. Crucially, we said that the response should be speedier, and we blamed the scope of the 2001 epidemic on Whitehall delays.

On this last point, Gordon Brown has listened. Even before a second Surrey herd was found to be infected a movement ban on livestock was in place, within hours of the first case being reported (it took three days in 2001) - but on the other points the jury is still out. There were early lapses in biosecurity, with footpaths and bridle paths open to the public.

One of the ironies in the current outbreak is that the disease looks likely to have originated from a nearby laboratory manufacturing vaccines to control the disease. The government has already ordered 300,000 doses of vaccine from the firm at the Pirbright site from which the virus seems likely to have originated. This seems odd: the firm that might have released the disease into the countryside is now making money from steps to prevent its spread.

The government must keep its nerve: whatever the cause of the disease, we must, this time, if necessary, vaccinate healthy livestock rather than slaughter them. The alternative, a repeat of the economic, environmental and humanitarian crises that engulfed the country in 2001 (and from which some rural communities have yet to fully recover), would be unforgivable.

Crucially, the government, and indeed the European Union as a whole, has to review its obsession with international trade. We will never eradicate all animal diseases, but we can substantially reduce our vulnerability to them, by prioritising relocalisation of food systems.

There are growing calls to bring to an end the absurd "food swap", whereby member states trade vast quantities of products between countries producing essentially the same goods. Instead, we should be working towards reducing the carbon emissions associated with such international trade.

Maybe this outbreak, which we must hope is contained more speedily than the last, can promote recognition of the vulnerability to disease that unnecessary "food swapping" brings, and thereby hasten its demise.

Caroline Lucas is Green Party MEP for South-East England, and was vice-president of the European Parliament's committee of inquiry into the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic

Caroline Lucas is Green MP for Brighton Pavilion.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix