One more symptom

power, or by the view that market mechanisms and profit are the solutions to environmental problems, to gather together, to reject Kyoto, to tell the world why this system is no good, and to force real changes based on social justice, leading to wider economic transformation.


World Bank carbon website: [archive]Equity Watch, Centre for Science and Environment, India: [archive]

Larry Lohmann, ʻThe Carbon Shop: Planting New Problemsʼ, World Rainforest Movement, 2000.

Dept of Environment, Transport and Regions, Business and Climate Change: UK Advisory Office, 2001. Michael Grubb et al., The Kyoto Protocol, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1999.

ʻCarbon Capitalismʼ, Corporate Watch 11, 2000.

UNFCCC website: [archive]

International Institute for Sustainable Development:

One more symptom The foot and mouth crisis in Britain

Ted benton

The brief and tepid diversion offered by the general election in Britain now over, the premature media postmortem on the (continuing) catastrophic outbreak of foot and mouth disease has begun. So far there have been an estimated 4 million animals – the majority of them sheep, but more than half a million cattle and tens of thousands of pigs – slaughtered because of the epidemic and buried or incinerated; 2,000 confirmed cases, but more than 7,000 farms directly affected by the ʻfirebreakʼ strategy; financial and personal losses to farmers on an unprecedented scale; the final discrediting of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and much of the ʻscientificʼ advisory apparatus connected with it, and so on. So far the analysis in the mainstream media has focused on the management of the crisis. Did ministers and the ministry recognize early enough the seriousness of the initial outbreak? Did it take too long to remove ʻred tapeʼ, involve the army and so get the slaughter under way within twenty-four hours of suspected cases? Was the vaccination option dismissed too early, and then resurrected too late? How far were interdepartmental and ministerial rivalries responsible for insufficiently prompt and effective action? What risks were involved in the methods of disposal of the carcasses, and how defective was the management of this ghoulish business? All perfectly proper questions, but none of them comes close to probing the underlying causes and significance of yet another major crisis in the UK food industry.

Comparison with the earlier outbreak in 1967 is interesting. The ʻlessonsʼ of dealing with that outbreak had not been learned. But the stark differences in the scale and scope of the current outbreak would have made those lessons more difficult to apply in any case. Massive increases in the distances travelled by live animals, inadequacies and downright corruption in the documentation of movements, made the job of tracing suspect herds virtually impossible. This highly infectious disease was spread throughout the UK within weeks, with ministry officials constantly caught on the hop by new outbreaks in unsuspected places. Some commentators have blamed this increase in live animal transportation on the closure of small, local abattoirs in the wake of post-BSE regulation. No doubt there is some truth in this, but it is limited. Compare a map of animal movements with that of the abattoirs, and it is clear that something else is at work: marketing opportunities, and in particular the purchasing strategies of the big retail chains. Although the source of the initial outbreak is yet to be confirmed, it seems likely to have been imported animal feed. As with BSE, draconian controls had to be introduced in a vain attempt to prevent spread of the infection to herds in other countries.

If we set the current outbreak in the wider context of recurrent food scares – salmonella, BSE, hormone and pesticide residues, irradiation, and, most recently, concern over the health implications of GM crops – then it can be seen as one more symptom of an intensifying, multidimensional crisis in contemporary capitalist agriculture. The so-called ʻsecond agricultural revolutionʼ, characterized by increased mechanization of labour processes, the replacement of organic with artificial fertilizer, replacement of biological with chemical pest control, arable monocultures and intensive, enclosed rearing of stock animals, has profoundly altered rural social relations and ecological conditions of life. These have been most deeply felt in rural communities in ʻThird Worldʼ countries, where conversion to export-oriented production of cash crops, often linked to externally imposed neo-liberal ʻstructural adjustmentʼ policies has driven smaller farmers into ecologically disastrous overexploitation of fragile marginal land, or altogether out of the countryside, intensifying problems of poverty and ecological crises in the cities. But in the overdeveloped world, too, the effects have been disastrous, concentrating landownership in fewer hands, destroying culturally valued historical and ecological landscape features, degrading and destroying wildlife habitats, polluting watercourses with fertilizer runoff and animal waste, and lacing foods with pesticide, hormone and antibiotic residues.

An agri-industrial complex

In many ways these developments exemplify the growing significance of ʻhigh consequenceʼ risks, well characterized, in particular, by Ulrich Beck, but it would be a mistake to see them as in some unexplained way an outcome of a secular process of technological change and ʻmodernizationʼ. They are, rather, the product of a quite specific combination of new forms of institutionalization of capital combined with both national and transnational policy. The intensification and transnationalization of food production, processing and distribution have been made possible and are now sustained by massive postwar levels of both vertical and horizontal integration of firms controlling seed production, agri-chemicals, pharmaceuticals, food processing and retailing.

This ʻagri-industrial complexʼ largely controls levels and types of production at farm level, leaving farmers with limited, if any, autonomy. It also profoundly influences national and transnational policy through its colonization of agriculture ministries and powerful presence in negotiating the terms of international trading regimes where its interests are affected. Finally, through its financial and institutional dominance in the field of agricultural research, it sets the pace and the agenda for innovation in food production and distribution.

There are several mechanisms linking this new political economy of agriculture, pharmaceuticals and food processing with increased risk, rural social dislocation and environmental degradation. The concentration of agricultural research and monopolization of breeding and seed production has led to a dramatic increase in the genetic uniformity of both stock animals and crop plants. This renders the whole population vulnerable to rapid and large-scale epidemics. At the same time, intensive use of pesticides and antibiotics has stimulated the evolution of resistant forms of pests and pathogens. A costly and dangerously spiralling ʻarms raceʼ between the chemical and pharmaceutical industry and these organisms is set in motion. The introduction of genetically modified crops is but the most recent twist to this spiral. The greater control and cost-cutting associated with intensive livestock rearing have, apart from the welfare implications, also greatly increased the risk of spread of disease among confined animals, in turn contributing to increased use of antibiotics, and well-documented risks to both animal and human health.

The use of growth hormones and high-protein, meat-based dietary supplements in livestock regimes to increase profitability seems likely also to have been a major cause of human health risks. In the case of both BSE and foot and mouth, infected meat products in animal feed are implicated in the transmission of disease between species, as well as its epidemic spread. Finally, the role of the highly organized agri-industrial complex in influencing national policy (as, for example, their successful lobbying to deregulate animal feed processing in the UK, a significant factor in the transmission of BSE) and transnational trading regimes powerfully undermines attempts at public-interest regulation of trade and technical innovation. The difficulties faced by both EU and UK governments in relation to import and labelling of GM foods in the face of this are well known. Above all, however, it is the immense, unaccountable institutional power of the agri-industrial complex over the whole international system of food production, processing and distribution that needs to be challenged; its power to determine who eats and who does not, what we eat, how what we eat is produced and by whom, and at what social and environmental cost.

And, indeed, that challenge is mounting. The vastly increased mobilizing power of social movement organizations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, together with a host of other groupings, is significantly fuelled by popular disquiet at the ravages of the new agriculture. Ironically, the local mobilizations against live animal transportation which took place in 1995 (often seen, even on the Left, as a marginal and ephemeral phenomenon) could not have been more germane. Had their welfare-inspired demands been met, the foot and mouth epidemic could not have taken the form it did.

Unquestionably, it was the enormously complex and inadequately documented patterns of transportation of live animals which distributed infection across the country with a speed far outstripping the capacity of government agencies to trace and predict new or likely outbreaks. The contrast with the much more localized earlier UK epidemic is instructive. Here and there in the public commentary on the foot and mouth crisis there is a timid acknowledgement of the more fundamental issues. The solutions seem obvious: we need big changes in the way agriculture is organized. Farmers need to be encouraged to plant more diverse crops, to be oriented to local consumption rather than distant markets, to rely less on chemical inputs, revert to integrated pest control, and where possible move over to organic production in response to burgeoning consumer demand. In terms of policy, subsidies should be shifted from price-support to sustainable livelihoods, rewarding farmers for their role as responsible custodians of environmental values on behalf of the wider community, and encouraging sustainable production.

Although you have to search hard to find them, there is even a paragraph or two in New Labourʼs recent election manifesto gently hinting at some of these measures. On the surface, the setting up of an independent food standards agency, and the creation of the new rural affairs ministry, look like steps in the right direction. However, they can equally become token gestures to appease public concern. The new ministry remains dominated by the old MAFF civil servants, whilst the reallocation of environmental protection to it leaves huge areas of policy in the fields of planning, transport and the regions without a clear environmental brief. Above all, New Labour continues to foreground support for the new biological technologies in its core economic strategy.

While this remains the case, all talk of ʻwaiting until the scientific evidence is inʼ on GM foods is sheer rhetoric. The same goes for serious moves to shift in favour of a policy of sustainable food production.

The city and the country

But the foot and mouth epidemic has done something to expose these contradictions, and to create a space for radical new thinking about the whole complex of food production and distribution, environmental protection and rural–urban relations. MAFF, an enormously powerful obstacle to much-needed change, was substantially discredited and has been dismantled. Whether the forces gathered under its aegis can effectively regroup in the context of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the European Unionʼs Common Agricultural Policy remains to be seen.

The authority of both MAFF and the National Farmers Union even as representatives of agricultural interests is now open to serious question. Big policy divisions emerged among farmers during the epidemic, and many smaller stockbreeders and upland sheep farmers among others clearly did not see their interests served by the mass-slaughter policy of their leadership. But if the epidemic revealed a crisis of representation within the farming industry, it also exposed a still greater one between the landowners and the countryside itself.

Agricultural fundamentalism – the assumption that the interests of the countryside and of the farmers were identical – has been the underlying ideology of the UKʼs planning system since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. This is what put farmers above planning law, and made possible the vast transformation of the UK countryside wrought by the industrialization of agriculture. Measured solely in terms of economic impact, the crisis may have cost rural tourism more than six times as much as the farmers. This is one indicator among many that the rural environment is valued by urban and rural dwellers alike for many more purposes than food production – let alone the profitability of the agri-industrial complex. Visions of a new, ecologically sound, humanly just and sustainable ʻsettlementʼ of rural–urban relations need to be tabled and debated by a green Left if the political opportunities opened up by the catastrophe of this epidemic are to be taken further. But the Left is not currently well placed to take up these opportunities.

In the highly industrialized and urbanized countries of the West, the Left has been centrally concerned with the prospects of largely urban-based labour movements and related issues of public welfare. Highly sophisticated approaches to rural transformation developed by Third World organizations have had little impact here, and even within the environmental movement the most progressive tendencies have increasingly focused on industrial risks and hazards. Earlier, utopian writing that is relevant is often associated with a nostalgic, arcadian view of the countryside which neglects the poverty and exploitation that invariably accompanied it. New and creative thinking is needed if we are to address seriously the deep policy issues now coming to the surface. Is the sharp division between town and country which has been at the centre of planning law for half a century worth preserving? Has it brought the social or environmental benefits it promised? Alternatively, do we want to see unrestrained urbanization of rural areas, an elimination of the distinction between town and country? If neither of these, what? It will be disastrous if these issues are marginalized as parts of a ʻrural agendaʼ, irrelevant to the great majority of us who live in towns and cities. The urban and the rural may be spatially distinct, but socially, economically and culturally they are inseparably intertwined. The pursuit of safe and healthy food, animal welfare, the greening of the urban environment must be understood as involving a radical restructuring of the relation between town and country, a new approach to agricultural policy, rural planning and social relationships in the countryside.

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