Bruce Anderson: An ill wind just as farming outlook turns fair

In response to this outbreak, we will need luck, hard thinking and the ability to learn from past mistakes
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There is a doubly cruel irony in the latest foot and mouth outbreak. Farmers rarely admit to optimism. They talk as if the barometer always reads "set unfair". You cannot judge how well they are faring, by listening to what they say, but only by watching how well the Range Rover crop is doing. In the past couple of years, that has been flourishing. British farming has floated off the rocks and this is not a temporary respite. There is nothing temporary about China.

The Chinese have already been responsible for a surge in hard commodity prices. The soft ones are now following, and according to one of the shrewdest economic observers of my acquaintance, this could continue indefinitely. Within the past 50 years, tens of millions of Chinese were eating grass and bark in a desperate struggle against starvation. Even a few years ago, the average Chinese thought himself fortunate if his rice bowl was full. Rice plus a squeeze of duck juice on high holidays and maybe the odd stray cat or unwanted female baby: the diet of the vast majority of mainland Chinese bore no relation to the culinary delights of the World's Chinatowns.

Those days are over. It will not be long before there are as many Chinese restaurants per capita in China as there are in Britain. As China grows richer, significant numbers of Chinese are enlarging their gastronomic horizons, especially in the direction of beef. More acres for cattle means less room for other foodstuffs, so all prices rise - encouraged by increasingly affluent Indians, who are also eager consumers of everything, except beef.

This creates problems, especially for sentimental environmentalists. Cows emit. Even while they are mooing in pastoral tranquillity, they are rivalling London's sewers in methane output. Another reason for high agricultural prices is the increasing use of ethanol to produce power. That also sounds green. It is not. Nuclear power is far cleaner than ethanol.

As well as refuting naive greenery, this is good news for a further reason. As the Chinese escape the threat of famine, others can hang on to their coat-tails, especially in Africa, where rich Western countries' agricultural protectionism has done so much damage to poor peoples' hopes. The Common Agricultural Policy and the US Congress are preventing millions of people from helping themselves by growing cash crops. The agricultural trading regime imposed by the affluent northern hemisphere is inefficient and immoral. Of itself, that would not force change. But because of the enlarged Chinese appetite, it is also unnecessary. It is likely that world market prices will soon exceed protected market prices, thus removing the greatest barrier to world free trade in agricultural produce.

The Chinese have yet to be persuaded of the need to harmonise their insatiable hunger for raw mineral materials with the need for good government in Africa. It sometimes seems as if they would be happy to strip-mine the entire continent and pay their royalties to dictators' Swiss bank accounts. But if the Chinese inadvertently allowed Africa full access to world food markets, that would be a degree of compensation.

Some British farmers derive their economic insights from the fatstock prices at the local auctioneers. A blessed few still lean over the five-barred gate, lick a finger and hold it to the wind. These days, alas, most of them study the City pages. Until 72 hours ago, they all had reasons for wary satisfaction. Then came foot and mouth, while much of the harvest is still awaiting the combine.

Six years ago, the countryside was crushed. Now, we are at the mercy of winds, bacilli - and laboratories. It seems almost certain that the scientists who were working on the defences against foot and mouth have somehow breached their own.

In response, we will need luck, hard thinking, and also the ability to learn from previous mistakes. BSE in the mid-Nineties, foot and mouth in the early 2000s: it is hard to think of two more hideous examples of panic and misgovernment. At the time, one minister involved with BSE told me when he realised that everything was going wrong. He went to the first crisis co-ordination meeting. There were 30 people in the room.

One trusts that the current meetings will be leaner and meaner. But there is one worrying development. It was obvious that Hilary Benn, the Defra minister, had to interrupt his holiday to take command. Was it really necessary for the Prime Minister to do the same? One suspects that Mr Brown was glad of an excuse to return to London. One also suspects that it is easy to over-estimate his enthusiasm for bucket-and-spade holidays. Cape Cod, reading the new book by the professor of economics he is dining with tomorrow evening at the central banker's house: that is how Gordon Brown likes his holidays. So a wifely-protest-proof crisis is a welcome interruption.

In David Cameron's case, one suspects that the wifely protest would be more strident, if equally ineffective. It would also be more justified. Until the extent of the epidemic is known, Mr Cameron dare not even visit a farm, so it is not clear what he can do by remaining in the constituency. We can enjoy the comedy, but we should also ask whether this is the right way to treat our politicians. British politics makes gruelling demands on its practitioners. Gordon Brown and David Cameron are both in the prime of life. Neither lacks stamina. Yet they would both function better over the next few months if they were allowed a couple of weeks off this August.

It is not as if there are no understudies. Hilary Benn is an able fellow. He will understand that, above all, there needs to be grip. If Mr Benn cannot supply that, he should not be in his job. If he can, all Gordon Brown could do is second-grip him.

In that case, back to the beach Prime Minister, with a telephone update three times a day. "What's that, Mrs Brown? I see, once a day. Sorry, Prime Minister, it sounds as if someone is arguing in the background. Okay, agreed: twice at day."

BSE plus the earlier foot-and-mouth cost around £15bn. In part, this is explained by panic, grandstanding and a rush to action before adequate thought had been taken. The risk is compounded, because politicians know that liability will fall on the taxpayer. A private enterprise which has been hit by a torpedo has to think its way out of trouble within budgetary constraints. A government can spend first and tax later.

Arthur Balfour once said that nothing matters very much and few things matter at all. All politicians ought to pay heed to that wise counsel. But they and particularly Gordon Brown, will merely point out that Arthur Balfour was one of the five 20th century Prime Ministers who never won an election.