Saturday, 22 December 2007

A momentary glimpse....

"it was interesting that I hadn’t come close to understanding the trauma these people were experiencing...” David King

Interesting use of an interestingly neutral adjective by the departing CSA, who, this article in the Times today reveals, wept during a play about foot and mouth seven years after his influence had carried out "a cull of millions of animals to stop the outbreak". Interesting that journalists still do not - apparently - understand what did and what did not "stop the outbreak".

As Dr Alex Donaldson's submission to the Lessons Learned Inquiry pointed out:
"....The epidemic had been in decline by the time of the introduction of the contiguous cull policy on 29 March. .."

It is interesting that the massive scale of contiguous slaughter, which involved 10,400 farms and at the very least 6·5 million livestock, was largely unnecessary. Fewer than 1500 of 2030 ‘infected premises’ that were tested in the lab were actually confirmed as being infected.

These are the statistics that are fading, helped on their way by that very human wish to airbrush out the unthinkable.

All the same, the policy, so heavily influenced by Sir David King, resulted in the unnecessary involvement of over 7200 premises (69 per cent of all premises affected) and the unnecessary slaughter of at least 3·35 million animals(52 per cent of all recorded slaughters),and an excess cost of at least £1700 million(62 per cent of the declared net cost to the UK taxpayer).(See Vet Record Aug 5 2006)

But it is Christmas. We do not want to remember the scenes of utter shambles, the terror and misery resulting in the grief that Sir David allowed himself to share, so interestingly and just for a brief moment, seven years on.

How much better to dwell instead on the gentle scenes of human and animal kindness that feature still - thank God - in so many Christmas cards.

Even so, let it never be forgotten that the Slaughter of the Innocents did take place - it still does and it still will - until some deeper awareness replaces the politics at the heart of animal disease control.

The mass terror of 2001 was not - the authors' eulogy notwithstanding - imposed for any necessary reason, needing the steely determination of someone resolutely deaf to - as the the Times article by Mark Henderson and Helen Rumbelow so interestingly puts it - "... the emotional pleas of protesters".

Hmmm. "Emotional"... Unlike "interesting", here is a word packed with sub text. These days, has not such an adjective become synonymous with "hysterical" - that push-button word, much used by a propaganda machine that ought to be thoroughly ashamed of itself? But this kind of shame has become out of place and out of date among those whose actions take so little heed of those upon whom they impact. So it is "interesting" to get a glimpse into the mind of one to whom emotional pleas are wholly irrelevant and certainly not, seven years on, any reason for self doubt or humility - but to whom, just for a moment, comes the sudden pricking of tears.

(See also warmwell blogspot: "Seven Pillars of Piffle")

Friday, 21 December 2007

Baaa ..... Humbug!

The cold winds do blow and we shall have snow ....and the Bluetongue midges - according to DEFRA decree today - will bite no more for a while. At least, this is what we and the midges have been told and the farmers, desperate to do some moving of stock at last, are not going to argue.

But what about the future of those sheep still abiding in the fields? How are they to be kept from succumbing to the Bluetongue infection-carrying culicoides of next Spring?

In its usual mixture of ponderous bossiness and defensiveness, DEFRA says:

"In keeping with the principles set out in the Bluetongue Control Strategy,which was developed in partnership with the farming industry, livestock keepers will be offered the opportunity to purchase vaccine from the vaccine bank..."
Which is all very well if you are one of the relatively well-off cattle farmers. Values have held up this year and will be expected to continue to do so next year. A farmer with a thousand head of beef cattle or 500 dairy cattle can be thought wealthy compared to the sheep farmers. But a sheep farm with a thousand ewes is not a wealthy farm at all. It's running at a loss and this year has been disastrous.

If we consider such a farm with 1000+ adult sheep, there will be nearly 2000 lambs just at the very time that bluetongue is going to return with a vengeance - as it did in Northern Europe this year. The virulence of its return there took everyone by surprise. If the vaccine is ready, now that a firm order has at last been placed by England (Wales has now ordered 2.5 million doses but Scotland has ordered none as far as we know,) 2 doses per animal at 50p a dose is the best case scenario. Sheep farmers like this then will be required to find £3000 to protect their animals. If vaccine turns out to be £1 a dose they will need £6000 - but these are animals who are worth pitiful amounts now.

The sheep farmers simply cannot afford it.

DEFRA seems wilfully ignorant of just how miserable the past months and years have been. Even more sheep farmers will give up - and having to take the decision to do so will be the worst kind of painful nightmare for them.

And for the country? We tend to take for granted the rural way of life and the sights and sounds of upland Britain. The uplands are there; a pastoral idyll to believe in. Most of us do not have to work to maintain it. But we treasure it and life is better just knowing that it is there.

How many people realise that an entire way of life is on a knife edge and the uplands could soon disappear? Does DEFRA understand this? As the Yorkshire farmer Alistair Davy says,
" if you want to see the future, just look at the west coast of Scotland .. the farmers had no other industry to rely on, ...all the animals have gone ......if the sheep and the cows are no longer grazing, it wouldn't take long for it to become impenetrable with bracken and bramble. For the last few years, the true picture of the problems facing agriculture have been masked..."

And why are the sheep farmers being told to pay when they simply do not have the means? The EU Commissioners have agreed to fund the first year's vaccination campaign with 100% costs of vaccines and 50% of the costs.

When DEFRA officialdom was challenged on this, the reply came back that if the UK accepted this offer there would be “other costs that would probably be greater". "Other costs" ?

Perhaps one reason why DEFRA has been so very silent on the question of the Brussels offer is because funding for vaccination is conditional on the traceability of the vaccinated animals. The EU has been very sniffy indeed about the UK's dithering over this. The UK's plans for a National Livestock database has been sputtering along for years.

In 2004, "Identifying and Tracking Livestock in England " was published by the National Audit Office (pdf). Pages 45 and 46 of that document show how - for years on end - previous reports from several different concerned bodies, had followed one after another, all urging an efficient system of traceability. In spite of this endless procession of good intentions, nothing of worth materialised. In February 2004, following the NAO report, the Public Accounts Committee gave Sir Brian Bender and co the sort of hard time that never gets reported in the media and ought to be. One Treasury Minute response to the PAC conclusions also makes fascinating reading. Mr Gerry Steinberg, Labour MP for the city of Durham, prophetically asked Sir Brian Bender:
"You will not be coming back in two years' time and saying 'Well, the IT was difficult, we could not get the software'....?"
That was 2004. Sir Brian couldn't get the software.....

But it's the farmers who must now pay for this and other catalogues of failure.

We have to vaccinate the sheep. Other European countries are not in our situation. There, the cattle far outnumber the sheep and vaccinating the cattle and some sheep should confer a degree of protection on the whole animal population. 80% will do it. But in Britain the ratio of cattle to sheep is more like 25:75, the other way round. If sheep farmers can't afford to vaccinate then the sheep are not going to be vaccinated. That means that even if the cattle farmers do vaccinate the disease is not going to be stopped. Where are DEFRA's "other costs" then? It will cost many animals their lives and farmers their livelihoods. It will cost us the uplands. Bluetongue will be the death of sheep farming unless we can get the sheep vaccinated.

Cannot some way be found simply to by-pass DEFRA with all its inefficiency, its failure to comprehend farming, disease and its pitifully inadequate grasp of technology, virology and vaccination? Unless funding can somehow pass direct from the EU to the sheep farmers this will be the last Christmas for many whose simple satisfaction was to see their sheep safely graze.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Seven pillars of piffle

The Science and Technology Committee (which now must be termed the "Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee" for reasons hard to fathom) has been taking evidence on the role of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser from Sir David King, today. The parallel universe that he inhabits is rather an odd one.

Here are some of the royal gems:

Ignorance is best.

Sir David asserted that he was better at challenging people on subjects he was unfamiliar with, such as epidemiology, as he was "able to keep some distance from the issue".

Killing animals because the computer says so is good

When asked what the best moments had been as Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David replied that it was "demonstrating that science could offer a solution to the foot and mouth outbreak". It had showed how complex phenomena could be computer-modelled, he said. (That it showed too that a government could, with advice from a group that was neither expert nor accountable, manage to slaughter over 10 million animals and cause rural trauma the effects of which still reverberate - was not mentioned.)

Upsetting Number 10 is bad but telling people that global warming is bad is good.

Sir David said that he regretted the phrase "global warming was a bigger threat than global terrorism" because Number 10 had "made its displeasure well known". However, he added that the result of the statement was a growing "acceptance of the threat of climate change". One wonders if he had cast a glance at the article today on Sunspot activity in today's Independent. It might have made him a little less adamant about the current dogmas.

Cuts are increases.

Sir David said that the 'flooding study' had produced an increase in funding for the Environment Agency's work. No mention of the swingeing cuts to be borne by the same Agency, expected to cut £14.9m on flood defences and £9m on environmental protection. (Guardian) The poor cash-strapped Environment Agency is now seriously proposing abandoning the maintenance of established defences - which will leave farmland and isolated homes even more vulnerable to flooding in counties such as Suffolk.

Foot and Mouth policy has "science" embedded in it and is evidence-based.

When the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris asked if the Government's use of evidence had improved over recent years, Sir David said that Foot and mouth disease had been "a good example of this". Comparing the 2007 and 2001 outbreaks he said that "Science had been embedded in the thinking on high-profile, high-risk issues". No one seems to have pressed him to explain the meaning of that statement.

DEFRA's amazing progress

On the question of raising the profile of science within Government departments, Sir David said that in DEFRA, 'amazing' progress had been made. No one seems to have asked him what this meant either. He did however say that Pirbright "needed rebuilding". Was he saying this before the disastrous leak in August? (See Times)

GM modification of crops. Very, very good for us all.

Brian Iddon asked why Sir David was raising the issue of GM food again. David King said that the issue had "matured" and that there was now a better information base on the health and biodiversity issues involved. He did not elaborate. New crop technologies would be needed to feed the world's growing population, he asserted - evidently not concerned by arguments such as those by a contributor to the FAO's Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture, Professor El-Tayeb, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of Industrial Biotechnology at Cairo University who says:
"..currently available (GMO's) mostly contribute negatively to poverty alleviation and food security and positively to the stock market."

Well, it will soon be goodbye from Sir David. Like the log entries of the Starship Enterprise, the legacy of his tenure will be properly chronicled one day and people will marvel. Meanwhile, where will he boldly go? He denies that he is taking up a post in the Bio-tech industry. But undoubtedly Brave New Worlds await him and we wish him God's speed on his journey away - Warp Factor 8 at the very least.