Foot and mouth disease has dominated the press and TV for the last week. The disease is highly infectious, and action is needed. But it is not like BSE, mad cow disease, which passed to humans with devastating consequences. There is little risk to humans from foot and mouth disease. No one is likely to die or even get ill.
Nor is foot and mouth disease generally fatal to animals. Most infected animals fully recover within a few weeks. The reality was well summed up by the US business paper the International Herald Tribune: 'Foot and mouth disease causes a loss of appetite so that farm animals gain less weight and give less milk-and the farmer gets less profit.' The drive for profits is barely mentioned in the media coverage- but should be central to all serious discussion.
The way capitalism in industrialised countries has developed agriculture is a major contributory factor to the spread of the disease. There has been a drive to concentrate animals in ever greater numbers, often in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
This makes animals more disease-prone, and disease more likely to spread. Putting profit above safety and need has also led to the closure of local abattoirs and the concentration of slaughter in a few giant sites-again making it more likely disease will spread.
One result has been the shipping of live animals hundreds of miles to giant slaughterhouses in the pursuit of a few percent extra on the profit margin. This is why the current outbreak of foot and mouth has rapidly spread across Britain, whereas the previous major outbreak in 1967 remained confined to certain areas.
Animals from Northumberland are shipped to Essex, Europe and beyond for slaughter for no rational reason, but purely for extra profit. Yet it makes far more sense from every rational point of view to slaughter animals for food near where they are produced. Some commentators argue that cheap food is the problem. Most people in Britain do not find food cheap-ask any family struggling to pay the weekly bills.
Many farmers and the workers who buy food in the shops have been hit by the same people-the giant firms who control food distribution and sales. One study estimates that 50 years ago farmers got something like 60p in every pound consumers paid. Now the figure is around 9p, says the study. The beneficiaries are the giant supermarkets which dominate food supply. Unhealthy They have seen profits soar. The biggest, Tesco, almost hit £1 billion profit last year.
The same picture is true globally. Bodies like the IMF and World Trade Organisation tell countries they must grow crops for export to pay off debts. The result is a glut of particular products on the world market, and prices plummet. That ruins the livelihoods of many small farmers in the Third World. Consumers in industrialised countries don't benefit. Instead global food corporations get raw materials cheaply, process them into often unhealthy products and sell them at huge profit margins to us.
The answer is not more expensive food, nor to dream of a world of small communities supplied entirely from whatever food you can grow locally. It is to harness the best of modern science and technology, including good animal husbandry and agricultural practice, so we can have healthy and cheap food. What stands in the way is profit.