European farming in crisis
Dangerous outbreaks of foot and mouth disease add to the problems caused by mad cow disease
by Ralsa Pages (Granma International staff writer)
The United Kingdom has become the center of epidemics that have struck European intensive farming operations.
The continent's farmers, who have been struggling for some time after the appearance of mad cow disease, are now reeling from the news of a recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Both epidemics originated in Britain. European Union (EU) officials have stated that the continent is experiencing its worst ever agricultural crisis.
The number of confirmed cases of foot and mouth are still mounting in the UK and threatening to spread across the short stretch of sea that divides it from the remainder of the continent.
The last meeting of EU agriculture ministers did not eliminate financial differences for combating the crisis affecting the farming sector, even though it took place against a background of massive demonstrations on the part of French and Belgian farmers, who also blockaded roads and ports. Instead, it concentrated on methods to be used to control the current foot and mouth outbreak.
The $900 million USD that the EU has designated to carry out diagnostic tests, destroy unwanted meat and slaughter 1.7 million head of livestock will not be increased. This has caused anger and dismay among farmers in countries affected by mad cow disease, who must now increase their spending on measures to prevent foot and mouth.
Smoke from the incinerated animals is drifting across the English Channel. Various countries that have recently imported livestock from the UK have slaughtered herds of sheep and pigs in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease.
The new emergency has also led to a tightening of customs controls and closing borders to the movement of animals from one country to another.
Meanwhile, British retailers are concerned at the reduced availability of meats and the rapid price rises that have occurred. Other news reports have highlighted a drop in consumer confidence that has led to less meat being consumed.
According to an EFE news agency report, butchers in the German district of Wilstermarsch are offering free competition entries to those who purchase their meat, with the chance to win prizes like a trip to the River Elba or four days in Strasbourg.
THE ORIGINS OF THE CHAOS
Mad cow disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), would probably never have made it onto the front pages of the world's newspapers if it were not a disease that can be transferred from animals to humans.
The first BSE infected cow was diagnosed in the United Kingdom in 1985. Since then, outbreaks have been reported in Ireland, France, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Spain, and recently in Sweden.
The disease has an incubation period of up to 10 years in humans and appears as a new form of Creutzfeldt-Jacob Disease (CJD). The differences in symptoms from the rarely seen classic form of CJD bear a similarity to those observed in cows suffering from BSE.
A 19-year old Briton, Stephen Churchill, was the first victim of the disease. He died in 1995 and his was the first of more than 100 deaths, mainly occurring in Britain, but with three cases in France.
Although the scientific community initially cast doubt on the disease's link with eating infected meat, the British government secretary of state for health admitted the connection before parliament in 1996.
According to a special report on the web-site of the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the disease's agent is an infective protein known as a prion, which is very similar to those found in the brains of various animals and humans.
Under certain conditions, the prion, which has no genes of its own, adapts itself and infects the others, ultimately leading to death. The altered protein is able to extend its harmful effects to the normal prions existing in the human brain.
The most widely accepted hypothesis as to the source of the mad cow disease outbreak is that it is linked to recycled animal tissue, which was used as feed in intensive farming.
Sheep remains employed in making animal feed were varied in the 1980s apparently to reduce costs. Those practices were banned in 1988, when it became apparent that the agents causing scrapie in sheep, one of the transmissible forms of spongiform encephalopathy, were not eliminated by freezing techniques and that the compounds necessary to ensure they were killed were not being used.
The most dangerous parts of the cow for transmitting the disease are the brain, the spinal column, the eyes, tonsils, spleen, and intestines.
WHEN NATURE IS VlOLATED
European authorities supporting sustainable livestock farming practices agree that the super-industrialized farming model has led to the current epidemic.
For Italy's agriculture minister, Alfonso Pecoraro, submitting livestock to systems that are not natural to their development leads to a weakening of their immune systems.
The banning of the use of animal remains in fodder has not halted the damage to the environment caused by intensive farming, where growth hormones and other medicines are also used that could subsequently affect people who eat the meat produced.
The fall in the European meat market has been calculated at some 30% on average, but some countries have seen an even bigger decline.
British officials estimate that this outbreak of foot and mouth disease could be even worse than the one which occurred in 1967, when around half a million animals were slaughtered.
In Britain some rural footpaths that lead through infected land have been closed to the public. Horse race meetings and hunts have also been suspended.
On the other side of the Atlantic, meat-exporting countries such as Brazil are aiming to improve their position in the European market. Sources within that South American country confirm that the same arguments used to confront the embargo on that product on the part of Canada, the United States, and Mexico will facilitate them occupying the space of other nations as a result of the current crisis.
The current epidemics affecting European farming are the result of excessive artificial attempts to increase the productivity of livestock farming. Nature is now calling in its debt.
Editor's note: Could it be because of the actions of the US government that Europe is experiencing these maladies now? See the first "Did You Know" in this edition for proof.