Cheap meat. Who needs it?

The BSE disaster is the price of producing food only for profit, not for people
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SOME have suggested that Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease may be as threatening as HIV and of those who cry "Nonsense!" we might reasonably ask, "Well, why should it not?". The agent of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy - an invasive unchaperoned protein known as a "prion", more like a computer virus than an ordinary virus - is a biological novelty. It is virtually unknown outside the little coterie of neurological diseases with which it is associated: scrapie in sheep, BSE in cattle, kuru and CJD in humans.

Biology is not physics; no one can ever say, a priori, what a virtually unknown agent might or might not do. Living organisms - or in the case of a prion, sub-living organisms - are always one step ahead of us; even the ones we think we know about. The Government has sought to quiet all fears these past five years with the all-dismissive plea, "there is no evidence!". But there's an ancient adage from the philosophy of science that squashes that argument entirely: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!" Of course, we should always strive to be charitable. So is it more charitable to suppose that the Government believed its own propaganda, or that it did not? Moral philosophers might like to ponder this. John Selwyn Gummer presumably did believe it. We meanwhile can reflect that prions are an unknown; and that many more people have eaten beef than have risked HIV infection.

There is one sense in which we should not be too carried away. However unpleasant CJD becomes, it is likely (not certain, but likely) to be low on the catalogue of life's hazards. Children are at far greater risk from traffic, men from heart disease and women from breast cancer. Perhaps CJD in the end will prove to be like rabies; an exceedingly nasty, understandably exciting horror, but rare. In short, if CJD was simply one of those things - a bolt from the blue, like Hong Kong 'flu - then we could reasonably say, "c'est la vie", and set out to minimise the damage with fitting stoicism. That is what the Government and farmers would like us to do. But in truth we have reason to be very angry indeed - not just with the Government and farmers, but with ourselves. For CJD, as the cliche has it, was a disaster waiting to happen, and we have all helped to bring it about. And not just CJD, but a great deal else that is foul and foolish.

The deep reason for BSE and CJD is that the modern world has lost sight of what agriculture is for. In the 1970s I set out to write a book on why there were so many famines since there seemed no technical reason for them - and found the deep cause was both simple and shocking: that large-scale agricultures, worldwide, are not designed to feed people. Always some other agenda supervenes. In Soviet Russia through most of this century agriculture was designed to show that collectivism works - which, unfortunately, in that context, it did not. The peasants, who knew about farming, wanted to do things differently. In the Western world agriculture is designed to make money. In a crude sense, that is reasonable: in a free economy, no money, no nothing. But when the making of money is seen to be synonymous with the maximisation of profit, and when maximisation of profit is put before commonsense demands of husbandry and indeed of humanity - then we are asking for trouble. In Russia, ill-designed agriculture led to famine. Here we have CJD.

So what is wrong with the way we produce beef and other livestock in this country and the rest of the Western world? Well, for a start we can ask: why do we produce so much of it? It's not a matter of protein and calories - wheat and rice provide those - but of minerals and recondite fats, and the all-important flavour. Neither is it the case, as vegetarians like to argue, that an all-plant diet is the most economical. For example, no crops will grow on the Yorkshire hills, except the tough grass favoured by sheep; and there are always parts of crops that people cannot eat, or do not care to, which other animals will. Livestock, in short, is necessary and can be thrifty, and the world would be badly off without it.

But quantity matters. Small numbers of animals fill the spaces between the serious crops but large numbers compete with us for food. About half the grain and more than half the pulses grown in the Western world feed livestock; effectively, we feed twice the population we need to. Huge resources - peanuts, soy beans - are channelled from the Third World to stoke the Western fires. Yet we eat too much meat: though there was a vogue for more and more in the lean and protein-conscious years after the Second World War, all serious nutritional advice since the 1970s has emphasised the dangers of saturated fat, and sometimes even of too much protein. Absurd technologies and associated cruelties are perpetrated to reduce the fat in meat - there have even been attempts to produce steers with unsaturated fat, like fish and sunflowers. But it is superfluous. We could just eat less meat. It is produced in such vast quantities only for profit.

The fixation on profit compels farmers to take the most egregious liberties; high-tech and crossed fingers (in the style of Mr Gummer) lend support to fundamentally misguided husbandry. The BSE prion began life as the scrapie prion. It spread from sheep to cattle because cattle were fed meal containing sheep meat. That, by any reasonable standards, is grotesque. With the possible exceptions of the termite and the death-watch beetle, there is no animal in the world less equipped to eat meat than the cow. It is also appalling husbandry, bordering on the insane. Of course infection is a key hazard of husbandry, precisely because the animals are so close- packed and so genetically uniform. The absolute rule is to interrupt all possible chains of infection. But while we gas badgers to prevent the transmission of tuberculosis bacteria into cattle (though we could simply keep the cattle indoors at nights) we feed sheep meat to cows, or at least did so until recently. Looked at objectively, this beggars belief. To be sure, we might have got away with it; but bad husbandry is bad husbandry. When profit is the driving force, however, those who do not cut corners go to the wall.

At least as shaming are the implications for animal welfare. There is no excuse for battery hens and broiler chickens; or for pigs and turkeys that grow so fast they cannot stand; or for 4,000-gallon cows almost liquefied by growth hormone; or for the catalogue of genetic extravagances now waiting in the wings to make what is already intolerable even worse. If we could seriously claim to be civilised we would ban all of these malpractices right now. Like BSE (and salmonella, and all the rest) they spring from a husbandry governed not by biology and common sense, but purely by profit.

This is where the governments and producers shed their crocodile tears. Of course, they say, we would love to do as you suggest! To raise animals in a civilised manner; to produce less, to practise sound husbandry, to take note of the animals' welfare. But our hands are tied! "The public" demands meat! And - the fingers wag and the eyes are dabbed - there are so many poor people in the world! If we did not produce meat cheaply, they could not afford it at all!

Sometimes, as Hermann Goering was wont to point out in a slightly different context, no argument will do. You simply have to reach for your revolver. "The public" does not "demand" meat. The vogue for steak was a piece of marketing and has long since died. When the opportunity is there we flock to the local Indian and the Chinese takeaway. A night out means Italian. In these as in all great cuisines meat is simply the garnish; only on the rarest of feast days does it form the centrepiece. This is good biology: meat in nature is a rare commodity and the human physiology is wonderfully geared to reality - and so, when left to ourselves, are our tastes. Meat is sold and sold again because it is more profitable to feed 10 kilos of wheat to cattle and pigs than to sell one kilo for papadoms - and for no other reason. The argument that poor people need cheap meat is almost beneath contempt. If people are poor it is because that is how we have chosen to organise our economy, and we have voted for the people who keep it that way. To alleviate the suffering of our fellow citizens by imposing even greater suffering on domestic animals is despicable.

Some will say that CJD is divine retribution. We can leave that to the theologians. Perhaps, closer to home, we might heed the traditional admonition of Yorkshire: "Think on!" Or perhaps, more orotundly, of George Santayana - that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. Whatever our rhetorical preference, it isn't just a matter of slaughtering cattle and compensating farmers. While our minds are focused we should take the opportunity to reassess what agriculture is actually for.

The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Philosophy at the London School of Economics.