Oliver Walston: Please don't call us whingers any longer

'As we sit nervously in our farmhouses, we have neither the energy nor the inclination to complain'

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British agriculture is holding its breath as it totters on the edge of meltdown. But to totter is not to fall, and it is still too early to write the obituaries. If the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease can - by some providential chance - be contained, we shall look back on the crisis which never was. But not many farmers are this optimistic. The foot-and-mouth virus spreads faster than the proverbial brushfire, carried by humans, birds or even the wind itself.

British agriculture is holding its breath as it totters on the edge of meltdown. But to totter is not to fall, and it is still too early to write the obituaries. If the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease can - by some providential chance - be contained, we shall look back on the crisis which never was. But not many farmers are this optimistic. The foot-and-mouth virus spreads faster than the proverbial brushfire, carried by humans, birds or even the wind itself.

What makes the problem so infinitely more poignant is that livestock farmers across Britain were just beginning to emerge from the worst crisis that has hit them in 50 years. The pig producers, who are completely unsubsidised, suffered most. They were used to the traditional boom and bust of the pig cycle, but nothing had prepared them for an unbroken three years of continuing - and mounting - losses. Many went bust, and those who survived are today just beginning to make a profit and rebuild their businesses.

Sheep farmers have also endured an existence only slightly better than the pig men as prices collapsed in the auction ring but - to their frustrated fury - remained high in the supermarkets. In the past few months, however, the value of sheep has risen by 10 per cent, which is why the clouds have lifted a bit over the uplands of Britain.

Dairy farmers too have been swept along by the same maelstrom as, thanks to BSE, they watched the value of their calves collapse and - far more significantly - the price of milk plunge from 25p per litre to nearer 16p. Today they are still losing money, even though calf prices are up and a litre of milk is now worth just over 17p.

Beef producers, who clearly bore the brunt of the BSE damage, were also just beginning to see some hope on the horizon. The value of a 500kg steer had risen from £400 to £500 as British housewives again included beef on their menus. In the past few months, however, the BSE scare in Europe has once again depressed prices as surplus continental beef has flooded an already overcrowded market.

So the mood on British farms might not have been bubbling with optimism, but at least there were the first few signs that as days lengthened and the floods started to recede, things might possibly be getting better. And then came the news of foot-and-mouth disease.

For farmers it is an unmitigated disaster, but for some on the fringes of the industry it presents a wonderful opportunity. It is depressing, but not surprising, to hear the sound of old bandwagons rolling again as those pressure groups who love food scares and hate conventional agriculture gleefully see another chance to scare the British public one more time.

On the radio this morning an organic farming spokesman announced that foot-and-mouth was yet another example of what happens to intensive agriculture. The fact that the disease has no connection whatsoever with intensive livestock systems was, unsurprisingly, overlooked. The fact that foot-and-mouth presents no danger whatsoever to the consuming public was also ignored. This sort of campaign is at best irresponsible and at worst downright dishonest, but it came as no surprise to the farmers of Britain, who have been loudly but unjustly blamed for every food scare in the past decade.

Another campaign, less shrill and much more justifiable than the organic movement's hysteria, has also taken advantage of the foot-and-mouth outbreak to press its claim. This group is suggesting that foot-and-mouth disease would not have spread so fast and so far had the Government not caused so many small local abattoirs to close. Ten years ago there were 1300 abattoirs in Britain; today there are barely 300. It is undoubtedly true that when pigs are moved from Northumberland or the Isle of Wight to Essex it is hardly surprising that diseases are impossible to contain. But it is nevertheless misleading to suppose that in the good old pre-BSE days animals were never moved round the country and were always slaughtered in local abattoirs.

The effects of the foot-and-mouth outbreak have already had a profoundly unpleasant effect on farming. The ban on all exports has created a surplus on the home market, and in some cases has destroyed a market completely. In the case of cull ewes, almost all of which were exported for the so-called "ethnic" markets, the price last week was around 30 pounds per animal. Today they are completely unsaleable.

Meanwhile the waiting continues as farmers listen to the news broadcasts to see where the next outbreak has occurred. The young ones are all too aware that one more lurch in the marketplace could bankrupt them. The older ones try not to remember the last epidemic of foot-and-mouth in 1967.

As an industry farmers have often - and rightly - been accused of whingeing. Yet today, as they sit numb and nervous in their farmhouses from Cornwall to Caithness, they have neither the energy nor the inclination to complain. The problems they face are not of their own making, and the solutions are equally outside their control. In the meanwhile, they wait and hope and wait some more.

The author is a farmer from Cambridgeshire

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