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The Return of the MAFF – animals beware

February 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Just reading a fascinating paper by Dr Katy Wilkinson (Newcastle University) and colleagues on the politics of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001. It shows how the National Farmers Union (NFU) largely dictated the Government response – led by the infamous Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) – to the FMD outbreak. Among other demands, the NFU called for countryside footpaths be closed, despite there being evidence from previous FMD events showing the walking public had no role in spreading the disease. I get the sense this deflected attention and blame from the farming industry. As a result, other sectors of the rural economy were unnecessarily decimated: between 2001–2005 it caused estimated £355 million loss to farming, compared with a staggering £2.1 billion loss to tourism.

The NFU vigorously opposed vaccination in favour of the mass slaughter of animals, the vast majority of which were not infected. This stance seems to have been motivated partly by financial considerations – it would be quicker to resume exports to Europe if culling was used. But there also seems to be a kneejerk reaction to simply kill animals whenever a problem arises.

I’m reading this on the day the Government has signalled a return to the bad old days of MAFF with an extremely farmer-centric rural policy which, as history tells us (remember BSE as well?), could have catastrophic consequences for other parts of the rural economy, animal welfare and public health. The FMD fiasco has chilling echoes of the current NFU/Govt determination to slaughter badgers in the face of contrary scientific evidence.

However, there is one passage in the paper which very succinctly expresses the massive political problems faced by animal protection groups, which I think we must take heed of. Indeed, it reflects the thinking behind the formation of our new think tank and policy research organisation, the IASJ.

The tactics employed by the NFU over the previous two decades in responding to the pressure from environmental groups critical of intensive agricultural practices demonstrate such anticipation and reaction. As Smith suggests, the NFU has capitalized on the poor resource base of many environmental groups which subsequently renders them unable to concentrate their efforts on a single issue for a long period of time; as a result, farmers need only resist pressure for a finite period of time before the pressure group and media spotlights turn elsewhere (1990a, p. 193).”

Refs:

Wilkinson K. et al, (2010) ‘Beyond Policy Networks: Policy Framing and the Politics of Expertise in the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease Crisis’. Public Administration Vol 88 pp331-345.

Smith, M.J. (1990a). The Politics of Agricultural Support in Britain: The Development of the Agricultural Policy Community. Aldershot: Dartmouth.