Punch-drunk farming suffers again

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The possibility that sheep may have become infected by BSE will strike fear into farmers suffering from five years of unrelenting financial misery.

The possibility that sheep may have become infected by BSE will strike fear into farmers suffering from five years of unrelenting financial misery.

Just as British agriculture appeared to be overcoming the BSE crisis, it was burdened by the country's worst ever foot-and-mouth epidemic, which has had knock-on effects for the wider economy.

But it is the farming industry that has borne the brunt and the starkest illustration is provided by the dwindling numbers of farmers in Britain. In the past two years, more than 50,000 farmers and labourers have lost their livelihoods and government forecasts say that the number of farms will fall by at least 25,000 by 2005 – at the cost of another 50,000 jobs.

The BSE crisis triggered the mass slaughter of cattle and undermined consumer confidence in British meat and other farm produce. At its peak in the early 1990s, more than 30,000 "mad cow" cases were confirmed each year and in all more than 77,000 animals were slaughtered. By the end of the decade the crisis had cost the Government more than £4bn. As ministers continued to play down the link between BSE and its human form, CJD, the European Union imposed an export ban on British cattle and meat in 1996, which was not lifted until August last year. The National Farmers' Union estimates that during the export ban, BSE-related costs to the industry totalled £326m.

As the crisis eased, farmers were still contending with the other factors contributing to a five-year recession. Movement of livestock was restricted after last year's outbreaks of swine fever and prices of farm produce were tumbling on world markets at the end of the 1990s. The strength of the pound strangled export potential.

At the beginning of the year agricultural economists were talking of a 60-year low in British farming – with average annual incomes at £5,200 – when an apparently isolated foot-and-mouth outbreak in Essex started a fresh crisis.

So far more than 1,900 cases have been confirmed and about 3.6 million animals slaughtered. The ban on exports, which includes cattle, sheep, pigs and non-UHT milk, is estimated to be costing farmers more than £12m a week – or £630m a year.

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