BSE: nature's wake-up call

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BSE, says Lord Phillips at the beginning of his vast report, is "a peculiarly British disaster". He's right. Despite unscrupulous attempts by both Conservative and Labour ministers to point the finger at foreigners, it was born in our overly intensive agriculture, and has almost entirely developed in this country. As his report meticulously documents, it was nourished by the rich culture of Whitehall secrecy - and by the arrogant refusal of politicians, officials and scientists to trust the public they are supposed to serve and safeguard. And, though he refuses to accept this, the crisis was made much worse by the all too British way in which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food unthinkingly put the interests of the food industry above the health of ordinary people.

BSE, says Lord Phillips at the beginning of his vast report, is "a peculiarly British disaster". He's right. Despite unscrupulous attempts by both Conservative and Labour ministers to point the finger at foreigners, it was born in our overly intensive agriculture, and has almost entirely developed in this country. As his report meticulously documents, it was nourished by the rich culture of Whitehall secrecy - and by the arrogant refusal of politicians, officials and scientists to trust the public they are supposed to serve and safeguard. And, though he refuses to accept this, the crisis was made much worse by the all too British way in which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food unthinkingly put the interests of the food industry above the health of ordinary people.

The report, it must be said, is very British, too. It pulls its punches, unwilling to do too much to disturb the official consensus of complacency. To read much of it, you might be excused for believing it was describing a heroic, successful (if, at times, flawed) campaign by ministers and officials to avert disaster, rather than a shameful chronicle of failure. At worst, it suggests, the crisis was caused by an honest scientific mistake about the infectiousness of BSE and a few relatively unimportant bureaucratic delays, compounded by bad PR. Since those responsible were - naturally - gentlemen, no one can fairly be blamed. Although Lord Phillips's calls for open government are timely and welcome, his softly-softly approach is unlikely to change anything much.

But, at the same time, the report is about a wider crisis that reaches far beyond these islands. This newspaper, we believe, has done more than any other to highlight the importance of safe food, campaigning on GM crops and never letting the BSE scandal fall out of sight. But we are certain that both of these issues are just symptoms of what humanity as a whole is doing to the planet. In society's arrogant belief - as entrenched as any Whitehall mandarin's conceit - that it can master nature, it is destroying the very life support systems on which the planet depends.

The forests that regulate the world's water supplies are being felled, precious topsoil is being stripped away, the seas are overfished and coral reefs are dying. Above all, we are irrevocably changing the relatively stable and benign climate that has allowed the growth of human civilisation over the past 10,000 years. And since the world economy is the wholly-owned subsidiary of its environment, we are fashioning a world for our children that will be materially poorer as well as naturally impoverished.

The BSE story is so horrific, so appalling in its human consequences (for farmers as well as vCJD victims), and so plainly an abuse of nature, that perhaps it might just serve as a wake-up call. It is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The compensation the Government has announced for the present and future victims of this dreadful disease is both welcome and overdue. But the only way of making any meaning of their scarcely imaginable suffering will be if we are shocked into change, finally acting as stewards, not masters, of the Earth.

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