Consumers and farmers share a common interest: healthy production of food

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The dominant image of the past week's news has been that of moist pig snouts. The overwhelming sentiment has been one of "Not again!" The impression has been of British farming entering renewed crisis: at its gloomiest, the reporting of the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease has suggested that it cannot be worth anyone's while to engage in livestock farming at all.

The dominant image of the past week's news has been that of moist pig snouts. The overwhelming sentiment has been one of "Not again!" The impression has been of British farming entering renewed crisis: at its gloomiest, the reporting of the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease has suggested that it cannot be worth anyone's while to engage in livestock farming at all.

It is important to retain not so much a sense of perspective as one of discrimination. This outbreak is already more serious than the last one in this country, which was confined to the Isle of Wight in 1981. But we do not yet know if it will be as bad as the epidemic of 1967-68, when 400,000 animals were destroyed. The evidence of the disease in places as far apart as Essex and Northumberland is not encouraging.

It must be remembered, however, when it comes to drawing general lessons, that foot-and-mouth disease is not like BSE. It is not a by-product of intensive farming: it is among the most ancient of the plagues to have brought periodic famine or dearth to agricultural societies. Indeed, it is reasonably well-controlled in rich countries like ours with advanced agricultural systems. While it is an almost continuous problem across large parts of south-east Asia - with the United Nations recently warning of the risk of a worldwide "pandemic" - there has not been a serious outbreak in the United States for 70 years or here for 30 years.

Apart from the fact that the disease does not affect humans, foot-and-mouth should therefore be separated from BSE, pesticides, herbicides and genetic modification as a source of concern for food consumers.

But there is one respect in which modern economics might contribute to the faster spread of the disease, and that is our increasing reliance in all aspects of life on long-distance transport. Animals can now be moved from a Northumberland field to an abattoir near London by motorway in a few hours. One of the minor but perverse results of the recent raising of standards in abattoirs has been to force many of the smaller ones out of business, which means that pigs and cows have to travel longer distances to the remaining ones.

The other respect in which the foot-and-mouth emergency prompts greater discrimination should be in breaking down the idea of farmers as a monolithic block, identical in wealth, political outlook and economic interest. Although farming remains an important industry, with export potential, it was always a simplification to observe that there was no such thing as a poor farmer. The succession of recent disasters to hit the agricultural sector should have put paid to that canard. Although many arable farmers still run highly profitable businesses, there should be no doubt now about the extent of the hardship endured by livestock farmers.

Pig farming has been particularly cruelly hit. Even before this week's foot-and-mouth outbreak and last year's swine fever, the industry was suffering from the costs of higher welfare standards which the Government rightly forced on them, although it wrongly failed to protect them from imports from countries with lower standards. The European Union moves much too slowly on such matters: although tethering sows has been banned in Britain, it will be allowed to continue in the rest of the EU until 2006. Anyone who cares about animal welfare should buy only British or free-range pork.

It is cold comfort for pig farmers, but anything that makes us more aware of where our food comes from and how it gets to our plates can only improve understanding. And that is vital to establishing that consumers and farmers share an interest in the humane production of healthy food.

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