Europe: The harm caused by ‘unethical’ livestock breeding

by Julio Godoy

Paris, 28 Mar 2001 (IPS) -- The detection of two cases of the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and the intensification of the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in France reveal the harm caused by the industrialisation of agriculture and livestock breeding in the European Union (EU).

High productivity has been the main objective of the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), since its introduction 40 years ago to protect continental farmers from international competition.

French peasants have been the CAP’s main beneficiaries, receiving the bulk of the subventions, some $21 billion, or 24.5% of the European agricultural budget. The European expenses on agriculture represent 50% of the total EU budget.

This financial aid goes mainly to the biggest French farmers, who are either cereal producers or livestock breeders. President Jacques Chirac, the architect and ardent defender of these subventions, was Minister for Agriculture, responsible for the design of modern CAP, in the early 1970s.

Although farmers make less than 3% of France’s population, and represent less than 7% of the country’s economy, their political weight is enormous. And they use it, often without any remorse.

Following the revelations of more than 250 cows infected with BSE in France, French cattle breeders demanded and obtained substantial financial assistance. So far, the government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has committed some $950 million in new subsidies for the ranchers.

In March, the government allocated $5 million as urgent financial aid to peasants in the western departments of Mayene and Orne, threatened with FMD.

All these subsidies are paid from the national budget, since the European Union has rejected French request for additional funding for the affected peasants.

The first case of the foot-and-mouth disease in France was detected three weeks ago in the department of Mayene, some 250 km west of Paris. A second case was discovered in the department of Seine et Marne, 50 km east of the French capital, last week.

To prevent the spread of FMD, the French government has ordered the slaughter and incineration of more than 50,000 sheep and other animals suspected of carrying the virus.

On Tuesday, the Minister of Agriculture Jean Glavany suggested for the first time, since the beginning of the FMD crisis, the vaccination of French livestock. Earlier, he had rejected it for high costs. Glavany’s about-turn followed a decision by the British government to request European authorisation for a massive campaign of animal vaccination against FMD in the United Kingdom.

Regional governments in Germany also requested authorisation for the vaccination of their livestock.

In the 1990s, the EU abandoned vaccination against FMD for fear that it would hinder European beef exports.

Forced by BSE and the FMD, the European Union is now seriously considering organic agriculture.

France is by far the largest agricultural producer in Europe.  European subsidy has stimulated production - since 1970, France has doubled its farming.

France is not only the world’s biggest wine producer, but also one of its largest cereal producers, churning out 37 million tonnes of wheat every year. France is European leader in cow breeding, with 21 million heads of cattle. It also rears pigs, and keeps poultry.

But, to the dismay of consumers, the European subsidy has encouraged unethical methods of farming in France. Unconfirmed reports say French farmers used to hold their animals in stalls and cells and feed them with non-organic fodder from silos, where all sorts of fodder are stored. In the case of poultry, farmers even alter their livestock’s daily routine.

Through artificial light in the cells, breeders reduce the animals’ sleeping time, to force them to eat more frequently, in order to accelerate their growth.

Last year, French media revealed that some farmers mixed forage with mud from sewage “to improve the nutritional value” of their poultry.

“The BSE crisis, along with other revelations of frauds, has changed consumers’ attitude, driving them toward organic food.” While demand for beef has fallen to some 40% since last summer, organic food has become fashionable.

The fall in the beef consumption can also be observed in other European countries. To counter them, during the EU summit in Stockholm last weekend, European governments agreed to study ways of reforming the CAP, through the introduction of environmental and consumer protection criteria.

Michel Gervais, General Inspector at the Ministry of Agriculture, says, “France should change all farming activities in the sense we changed the wine production along the Mediterranean coast 30 years ago.”

Up to the 1970s, wine from the southern regions of Provence and Languedoc was called “bibine”, a pejorative expression to describe alcoholic beverages of poor quality. But, after a radical reform both in cultivation and distillation, the Southern wine greatly improved its features.

Provence and Languedoc can now compete with traditional high quality wine regions, such as Bordeaux and Burgundy.

However, France continues to block any immediate changes in the European agricultural policy. At the EU summit in Stockholm, President Chirac demanded Europe “to show solidarity with the peasants, who cannot endure radical mutations every two years.”

Prime Minister Jospin, who also participated in the EU summit, accepted a “qualitative evaluation” of the European agricultural model, to introduce environmental factors in its conception. But Jospin said such evaluation should not affect “the power of French agriculture.”

Chirac’s and Jospin’s declarations are influenced by France’s charged political calendar. Parliamentary and presidential elections take place next year, and both Chirac and Jospin will run for Presidency. To enhance their chances, they are now courting farmers.

Economist Denis Clerc and publisher of the Review Alternatives Economiques, has described French farmers as “odd entrepreneurs for a capitalist economy, such as France’s, who cannot exist without state subventions.”

“Whenever capitalist enterprises lose their clients, they either succumb to the market forces or reconvert,” says Clerc. “But French farmers neither change profession nor practice, even if their market has all but disappeared”.

“When they cannot sell their products anymore, they sell their votes. In any case, politicians, ergo tax payers, settle the bill,” he says.