United in a tentative optimism, we had come together from Holland, Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland and even the USA to listen and to question. In the UK, an unaccountable Ministry that gives the impression that animals count for nothing and that it is farming families who should bear the brunt both of animal diseases and the arbitrary controls to slap them down and stamp them out, is getting increasingly hard to stomach - but the fact that the MEPs had wanted us to come seemed a very promising start. Lily Jacobs of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, opened the afternoon's discussions with some statements that seemed promising too:
"animals must be seen as more than mere animal products"and that
"vaccination should not affect value"So optimism seemed at last to be justified. However, as some of us were able to say, emergency FMD vaccination (always so frustratingly "considered") is not going to be acceptable to those who resist it while the EU rules continue to penalise it. Insistence that trade is held up for a further three months, together with the complex meat treatments demanded, is simply not underpinned by the science. There were murmurs of support from behind and around when this was said but, to general dismay, grim shakings of the head by several of those facing us could be seen. The extra three month ban was defended in terms that made no sense at all to the scientists among us.
There are, it seems, persistent carriers of the dogma that FMD infection, stamped out at any cost in blood and unhappiness, is better than FMD elimination by the safe, potent, modern vaccines that can so successfully distinguish diseased from vaccinated animals.
It was a blow - the more so since it doesn't seem credible that this can be anything more than a thin disguise for protectionism. But the harm it causes to farm animals, farming families and to farming itself is incalculable and, as one of the gentle farmers at the conference later told us with such passion, the effects of 2001, let alone this latest misery, are still taking their economic and emotional toll. He said that in 2001, DEFRA had said that lambs had to be starving to qualify for the payments of the welfare cull
"We chose to feed them and ended up almost starving ourselves."
We were cheered by the robust assertion that expecting the farming families to foot the bill when they have no say in policy nor guarantees of efficiency is mere "taxation without representation" and unacceptable. But gloom returned at the news that the "Community Animal Health Policy" document, in its draft form, had actually had many references to "welfare" crossed through by the CVOs themselves. It made some of us very thoughtful.
This is not the place for a detailed report of the rest of the two day meeting. A great deal of ground was covered; there were experts with a refreshing manner and a grasp of their subjects that made listening a pleasure. Topics ranged from the practicalities of vaccine production to the importance of the genetic pool in rare breeds, from the skills on the ground needed in a crisis to the little known habits but boundlessly successful spread of the culicoides midge - and much in between. New friendships were forged, assumptions challenged without rancour, questions raised and answered - and a forum for change in the evolving European Livestock Alliance began to look increasingly possible. The speakers joined together at the front for a final question and answer session, the sun beamed in and everyone expressed warm appreciation towards ELA and the Coordination Action organisers for the hard work that had paid off so handsomely.
Even the disasters were not as bad as they might have been. Two of the most eminent of the party had been stuck in a traffic jam for six hours while the rest of us were in the EU parliament but had safely arrived and were smiling wryly at us on our return to the hotel. British Airways had managed to mislay both Roger Breeze's suitcase and the rapid diagnostic machine that was to have been demonstrated to all. It finally arrived at the Hotel reception area, safe and sound, the day after most delegates had left and very early on the morning of Dr Breeze's own departure. Roused at an ungodly hour to see it in operation after all, I was grateful to the French train strike that meant I too was still at the hotel. I can personally attest that getting a sample into the machine (it looked like a large toaster) is easy and safe. Once inside, the sample is locked irreversibly into its small cassette and can later be disposed of with no danger of cross contamination or leakage. My training took less than five minutes but I could operate such a machine in the field, see the results transmitted by the internet and then dispose of the sealed sample with as much confidence as any enthusiastic young operator in Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan.
Why there? Because, although not yet in sophisticated Europe, a paradigm shift in disease control is taking place. Irony of ironies it is happening in the former Soviet bloc countries. Driven by the need to protect the world from the biological warfare threats of former times, countless dollars and expertise are being poured into Eastern Europe. The Cold War development of pathogens and biological warfare is being sent into reverse there with the result that we are going to see diseases eliminated actually within our own lifetimes - many of those very diseases that are at present merely being swatted at by Europe with its regulations, arbitrary controls, agribusiness interests and absurdly centralised control freakery.
This progress from the East is unstoppable. The overall system that uses such machines will soon be in operation everywhere to pinpoint disease and target it efficiently. It isn't going to be stopped by DEFRA disapproval. It isn't going to be stopped by anything. Like the amazing success of Wikipedia, Google and the Internet itself - the opportunity to claim information without its having been channelled or diverted first will give back to ordinary people a large measure of control over their lives. Will we have long to wait before we see such a transformation happening in our own countries? Rather than years I think we can start counting the months. The impertinence of bureaucratic interference can be consigned to its inevitable obscurity. When technology allows to everyone who needs it access to information, democracy is alive and well - and it seems certain that this particular access to information will soon help ensure that our animals remain so too.