The foot and mouth crisis in Britain, which is now spreading to the rest of Europe, is having a devastating economic impact. Nearly half a million animals have already been slaughtered, and the epidemic is still not yet under control. British food exports have been banned, while the closing of the countryside is losing the tourist industry a £100 million a week. The cost of the crisis is already estimated at 1.1% of GDP.
The present epidemic of foot and mouth is not a ‘natural’ catastrophe, any more than mad cow disease, swine fever, salmonella, E. coli, and other livestock infections are. It is the result of modern intensive agriculture: “The modern animal farm not only allows but paves the way for the outbreak of disease. We cram thousands of genetically uniform animals into unhygienic warehouses, generating a feast for microbes. We recycle animal manure and slaughterhouse waste as feed. We process meat at breakneck speed in the presence of blood, faeces and other contagion agents. Long distance transport of food creates endless opportunities for contamination.” (International Herald Tribune, 15.3.01)
The ‘we’ is not the population in general but the capitalist class in their frenetic search for capitalist profit. And the present degeneration of the farming industry is particularly the product of the crisis of the profit system, which takes the form of crises of overproduction. The consequent decay of the infrastructure of the capitalist economy, including agri-business, is the result of the capitalist attempt to lessen the impact of the crisis by all kinds of economies in production costs.
Mad cow disease was provoked by economies made in animal feed production, by adding abattoir waste, to offset the fall in the selling price of cattle on the world market. Result: a growing number of human victims of the agonising vCJD that turns the brain to jelly. Foot and mouth is an old disease, well known since the 16th century in Europe and one which ‘modern’ capitalism had seemed to be rid of. But Britain suffered a major epidemic in 1967. It had never used vaccination, preferring the cheaper method of wholesale slaughter. Yet in 1991 (while foot and mouth spread to Asia) other European countries also abandoned vaccination, because it was too expensive, and so other outbreaks have appeared on the continent in the 90s.
The present epidemic has expanded much more rapidly and extensively than in 1967 principally because of the recent practice of transporting animals for slaughter over longer and longer distances, within countries and over entire continents. In 1967 only one region was involved, this time it had spread to many before the first case was recognised.
Capitalism in decomposition is incapable of humanising the present system of agriculture. On the contrary, the present catastrophe, by getting rid of much of the huge surplus in livestock and by ruining the smaller producers, is only preparing for even more intense competition on the world market, and more intensive farming that will lead eventually to further disasters and more dangerous food.
In the face of the growing absurdity of capitalist production, the capitalist propaganda machine tries to hide the contradictions and puts forward all sorts of illusions to lull us into thinking that it is possible to have the present system without its convulsions. The politicians talk about making agriculture more ecologically sound and putting the emphasis on quality rather than quantity when they are preparing to further reduce the subsidies to producers that the different nation states can no longer afford. As the Financial Times, a business paper that is obliged to give some of the truth, said: “West European farmers obliged to convert to less intensive or organic production would need much greater subsidies than they receive today, or higher protectionist barriers in order to compete against their rivals in world markets” (5.03.01)
At the same time that the bourgeoisie is obliged to reduce the budget for the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU, the left wing of this class produces all sorts of laments for the golden past of self-sufficient local farming and pretends that it is possible to return to it by getting rid of ‘globalisation’. Some even blame the working class for demanding cheap food and not being prepared to pay the price for healthy produce! The working class isn’t to blame: in global terms capitalism benefits by cheapening food production since it reduces the cost of labour power overall, and so increases relative exploitation and profitability. Again the voice of capitalist truth from the FT affirms: “A steady supply of cheap food is a public good that should not be dismissed lightly [the workers have to be fed]. Europe, indeed the world, needs efficient farms deploying modern techniques to provide it. That means specialisation and trade, including arbitrage [carting animals long distances around the country to find the best price, or even just to avoid being sold at a loss] to take advantage of price differentials. There can be no return to a rural idyll of small-scale, local production.” (ibid).
As the economic crisis worsens, not only will the quality of food for the mass of the population continue to deteriorate, but its cost will tend to escalate as the weaker agricultural competitors are forced out of business, and those remaining try to offset the increasing loss of subsidy from the state.
It is only the abolition of the capitalist market at the world level and the installation of a society in which human needs will be the motors of production which will permit the emergence of rational methods of food production capable both of nourishing humanity and avoiding widespread disease and pollution.