World Environment News

FEATURE - Intensive farming blamed for Europe's food crisis

Date: 18-Sep-01
Country: UK
Author: Elizabeth Piper

Her mother, Jan, sobs as she retells the story of Diane's death, but says she is not so sure whether Britain's much maligned farmers were to blame for her 28-year-old daughter's death from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).

But she agrees with a growing number of Britons and other Europeans that it might be time to change their way of farming.

"They say that it could be cheap meat that's to blame. So why do we still sell it?" Jan asked.

Intensive agriculture - once lauded for producing an abundance of cheap food for the masses - is now public enemy No. 1, blamed for striking British cattle with a disease that has killed hundreds of herds and an increasing number of people.

Britain's recent foot-and-mouth epidemic all but sealed intensive farming's fate, giving critics yet more ammunition to attack a system that has also been blamed for salmonella in eggs, E-coli and for destroying the environment.

The criticism has become so strong that the British government has launched a review of farming methods and some have already hailed the end of a system that produced food for millions after rationing during the Second World War.


"There is no future for an agriculture that is depleting soil fertility, adulterating food quality, undermining public health and wrecking the environment," said Patrick Holden, director of the organic campaign group the Soil Association.

"This is the best chance we've had for decades to make the fundamental changes to drastically reduce the scale of intensive farming."

Holden, a campaigner for organic food production in Britain, said consumers would have to make the connection between cheap food and diseases like mad cow disease or BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and indirectly, foot-and-mouth.

Britons have been poisoning themselves because of a reluctance to pay more for food and had to opt instead for quality produce, he said.

More than 100 people in Europe have died from vCJD, believed to be caused by eating infected, cheap beef products. Scientists have said the numbers could increase, particularly in northern England and Scotland.

"BSE, the growing instance of food poisoning and pesticide residues are directly linked intensive farming," Holden said.

"Foot-and-mouth is less of a direct link, but there are important connections because the kind of farming systems we have, have resulted in animals which are highly bred and much more vulnerable to diseases like foot-and-mouth."

Officials have said Britain's foot-and-mouth epidemic, which has lingered for more than six months after being discovered in late February, was made worse by farmers, traders and consumers moving livestock the length and breadth of the country.

The cabinet office said earlier in the crisis that intensive farming methods adopted since the 1960s were partly to blame for the current outbreak.

Some say the movements in turn have been spurred by subsidies for every animal held by farmers. Sheep are sent round the country to boost farmers' coffers, they say.

"If you look at foot-and-mouth, we had these massive movements of livestock which came out very clearly in terms of animals going from Yorkshire (northern England) to Anglesey (in northern Wales) and all over the place," said Vicky Swales, farm policy adviser at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

"And this was essentially farmers chasing subsidy for per-head payments."


Britain has joined Germany in calling for the radical restructuring of the European Union's agricultural policy to reduce the emphasis on food production in favor of environmental concerns.

Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has long been linked with what critics say is an outdated intensive system.

"What has driven (industrial farming) is the policies within the Common Agricultural Policy," Swales said. "We would like to see an end to production subsidies, an end to export subsidies and tho

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