Foot and mouth

The foot and mouth outbreak has led to more precautions than any other 'crisis' in living memory. Government has treated it far more seriously than the heroin epidemic, which killed hundreds and ravaged so many of our communities. Yet foot and mouth does not present a danger to humans, its primary victim is profit.

It has shown up more of the effects that modern capitalism has on our everyday lives, this time as a result of intensive farming methods. BSE was the wake-up call. Suddenly we found out that a lot of farms were not the cute homesteads of storybooks, but giant businesses. It became clear that some farmers had several properties, that many farms were just factories for animals. The only important thing was profit.

Now we know that many animals are kept in filthy conditions, trucked across the country (and often from Ireland to Europe and North Africa) and then squeezed into sheds in disease-ridden conditions to be fattened up. After that they are moved again, to huge centralised abattoirs where they are finally slaughtered. We also know that big meat plants in Ireland (owned by 'respectable' pillars of society) were opening up in the middle of the night to process uninspected animals delivered by smugglers.

Excessive animal transport which moves infected animals around one country, and indeed several countries, ensures that disease spreads rapidly. And trucking animals over long distances causes them to become stressed; which weakens their immune systems and makes them more susceptible to disease.

Part of the free market globalisation drive is to remove health and environmental regulations at borders - if they make imports "less competitive". The US government was probably the first to make a stand on this - with its demand that hormone drenched beef from the USA be allowed on sale in Europe.

The truth is that foot and mouth is not a major killer for animals - and there is now a vaccine anyway. The weak and the young may die. Most just get a painful but short disease, and survive. The real effect is a loss of appetite. This means that sheep and cows put on less weight, that dairy herds give less milk. That is the key thing, productivity. In an industry that depends so much on intensive methods this is a disaster. The government's mass slaughter of animals is purely to protect profit margins.

A hundred years ago this minor drop in productivity would have been a thing that no one bothered much about. Farmers would have let it run its course. And disease would have stayed local. Now it has spread on an international scale. The foot and mouth crisis is a product of modern capitalism, of the relentless search for more and more profit.

Joe King

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This edition is No64 published in May 2001