The other day Arthur Clewley remarked on this here blog that single farm payment for farmers was pretty much the same as MP's expenses. My head spun a bit at that but I gave it due consideration, not wanting to stand up for farmers (an unhomogenous crew) just because we all have mud under our fingernails. After some head scratching I couldn't see that the one could be equated with the other, whatever one's position on public subsidy.
And then I read my copy of The Ark, and noted that Defra is considering new proposals for an independent animal health unit that might be better suited to making decisions about dealing with animal disease outbreaks, and that the cost should be borne not entirely but significantly by livestock farmers. The head spinning returned. After I'd gone through the scratching bit again, I continued bemused.
Firstly, if I recall correctly, the last foot and mouth outbreak was caused by government laboratories, not by farmers. I suppose that if the labs become independent then the government could start pointing their finger outwards for a change. But there is a bigger issue at stake here.
Farmers produce food for everyone, and they receive an ever reducing cut for this. The supermarkets then take a whopping profit, and the consumer gets to fill their trolley with goods. It's in everyone's interest that food is safe, and it's not a responsibility that just sits at the beginning of the food chain. Farmers are not the main beneficiaries of disease control in livestock - everyone who sells or buys meat (or milk, cheese, butter, yoghourt, eggs, wool, leather etc) is implicated. In fact, if you put farmers under any more financial strain the consumer will lose out; reduced availability of food of local providence, corners cut, welfare interests skirted round, more disease. And supermarkets will just buy their goods from overseas. A vicious and unvirtuous circle.
An equivalent approach in another sector would be expecting individuals with swine flu to pay for the production of Tamiflu for all.
I'm not against an independent body being in charge of animal disease outbreaks; the costs of foot and mouth in 2001 were huge and it's entirely possible that if an independent body had been in charge the costs may have been far smaller, the carnage far more limited, and the tourism industry less affected, based on simple affordability and less melodramatic scaremongering.
But Defra's proposals show a painfully blinkered view of the food sector. It isn't possible to survive as a food producer without making enough money to live on and to invest back into one's business; the farmer struggles whilst the supermarket booms. If the government is no longer interested in whether the UK can produce its own food and is happy with an increasing reliance on imports, it should say so. If it wants to break the back of British farming, its proposals if implemented will certainly provide further straws.