By David Walker

Agricultural economist

BridgeNews

NORWICH, England--After eight weeks of intense media scrutiny, the first signs the British foot-and-mouth outbreak is coming under control are emerging, if government statistics are to be believed. Some minds are starting to focus on the future of the livestock industry after the outbreak. While Environment Minister Michael Meacher had his knuckles rapped by the prime minister's office when he suggested there would be a post-mortem, there surely will be one.

The event has been too big and the government's performance too suspect for the issue to be conveniently forgotten. Any review will surely reveal that for the livestock industry, the foot-and-mouth outbreak is just another pothole on a poorly kept road. About 75,000 pigs were lost to the swine fever outbreak last year--it was limited to 16 cases and done and dusted in six months, which is a credit to the now much maligned ministry of agriculture. Some 178,000 cattle have been lost to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) since it was first recognized in 1986. It has just about been put to bed, although variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob's Disease, the human equivalent still has the potential to cause the industry grief.

In eight weeks of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, about 1.6 million head of livestock have been condemned to slaughter. Perhaps another million head will be slaughtered on voluntary animal welfare grounds. But last year, 3.6 million head livestock were simply lost to economic conditions. Between Dec. 1, 1999, and Dec. 1, 2000, the United Kingdom's livestock population was reduced by 2.1 million sheep, 1.1 million pigs and 0.4 million cattle. While the decline in the livestock population during 2000 may have been above average, it was not exceptional.

Since 1989, when the BSE epidemic was in its early stages, the U.K. livestock population has declined by 30 percent, and at a rate of 1.8 million head a year. This has gone largely unnoticed. But it is a far grimmer legacy for the industry than foot-and-mouth outbreak. This silent cull has provided, of course, little out of the ordinary to be photographed or filmed and has passed virtually unnoticed by the mainstream media. But for those involved, the losses were every bit as traumatic as the losses from foot-and-mouth. The foot-and-mouth victim has the solace of bad luck and public sympathy. The victim of the silent cull is on his own, and must deal with the inference of inadequacy and failure on his part.

The structure and state of the industry, including that part provided by the government, were almost certainly a contributing factor to the way the disease took hold and spread so quickly. Much of British livestock production utilizes land either too wet or too hilly to accommodate anything more than grazing. It is in certain economic respects similar to the high plains of North America--too much rain can be almost as debilitating as too little.

Elsewhere in Europe, the pretense of truly commercial agriculture has been largely abandoned in what are euphemistically described as "less favored areas." Tourism rules.

In Britain, however, farming is still seen as the mainstay of hill country. The challenge in Britain is that the weather in these areas makes tourism a hard sell. If the weather cannot be sold, then perhaps character can. But only if the agricultural industry that provides that character is sustained. Indeed, the conflict between tourism and farming is already evident as the government attempts to balance the two interests in the context of foot-and-mouth.

Yes, we are telling the world, the British countryside is open for business. And no, we are not increasing the risk of disease by encouraging people to visit the countryside. What was evident to farmers before the outbreak was that the government seemed to have very little interest in farming beyond minimizing costs to the exchequer. What should have become evident to the government during the outbreak is that it will take more than squeezing out farmers to create a mammoth coast-to-coast theme park.

An understanding of the countryside necessary for developing a strategy for agriculture acceptable to farmers will not come easily for the government. It has next to no rural representation and decisions will need to be made. Probably the most decisive action of government for the 98 percent of the population not involved in farming was the month's deferral of local elections.

Implicitly the national election, held at the prime minister's call, was also delayed. Delaying this decision for political effect will not have helped the government's cause much in rural areas where it is in any event viewed as a rather shallow show of understanding, even condescending. But to the 98 percent it may be viewed as a caring act worth the inconvenience. Sadly, the gulf is developing between rural and urban folk, which is amore serious challenge for any government than the state of the livestock industry. If foot-and-mouth spotlights this, some good may yet come of the outbreak.

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