Saturday, February 25, 2006

Farmers' response to bird flu

I am struck by some similarities between the approaching bird flu epidemic, and Foot and Mouth disease which hit the UK a few years ago.

At the start of the F&M outbreak, the National Farmers' Union was strongly opposed to any basic biosecurity measures such as restrictions on movement of cattle. Instead, they issued sterotypical "get orf moi laaaaaand" calls for tourists to stay away (the economic value of tourism is massively bigger than farming, and of course the disease isn't spread by tourists anyway, but it was a good chance to flex their muscles). The Govt (especially MAFF, which despite officially having responsibility for the countryside was essentially ruled by farming interests) went along with this, and imposed various fines and restrictions. The delay in cattle movement restrictions resulted in a massive national epidemic of this virulent and highly infectious disease (which fortunately has no implications for human health), and the entirely pointless shutdown of the tourist industry wasted billions of pounds.

Eventually, the Govt realised that the shutdown of the tourist industry was a massive over-reaction, but by then the damage had been done. The farmers got their compensation (ok, I'm sure that plenty of them also lost some money) but the tourism-related industries are still struggling to recover. MAFF deservedly ended up on the funeral pyre also, and its replacement DEFRA has a more explicit responsibility for Rural Affairs in general rather than the special interest of agriculture.

Now we have bird flu approaching, and what do the NFU do? In response to a suggestion that it might be sensible to keep poulty indoors, they call this a massive over-reaction. All we need is for them to do is to follow this up with exhortations for the townies to stay away, and history will have repeated itself in only 5 short years.

(If you've got some time to kill, you might enjoy this usenet thread from a few years ago - at 1134 messages, I think it's my most successful troll ever. Unlike most trolling, it was however entirely true, and was clearly vindicated within a few months.)

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