Foot and mouth and globalisation
by Marcus Browning Australia should not think itself immune from the foot and mouth epidemic that is currently devastating the British meat industry and is spreading into Europe. There is unwarranted arrogance in the approach of the Australian Government and the industry which has more to do with the prospect of plundering the markets of Britain and the European Union than with the existence of any iron-clad protection of Australia's livestock and agriculture. The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) has been the victim of the deregulation and cutbacks imposed on the Customs Service as a whole. "Self-regulation" is the buzz term for industries being left to follow the rules as they see fit while escaping public scrutiny and accountability. This has allowed dangerous situations to develop, such as a few years back when a number of countries importing Australian beef refused to accept delivery when an inspection revealed the meat was infected with unacceptable levels of dioxin, a result of the cattle having been fed with contaminated meat meal. It is why Maritime Union of Australia members are playing an increasing role in policing imports, preventing a number of dangerous pests, including snails and bees, from entering Australia. In Brisbane they recently alerted authorities about soil-covered earth- moving equipment which could have been carrying foot and mouth on a ship from Britain. "We have a close working relationship with AQIS", said the Maritime Union's Queensland Secretary, Mick Carr. "As soon as our members find anything suspicious it's immediately reported to AQIS and they send a team to investigate." The Government has banned meat imports from all countries with the exception of North America, New Zealand and Indonesia, raising the question of whether a deal has been done to divide up the meat export markets. Australia's livestock production is worth $13 billion and Australia currently exports $9 billion of dairy and meat products. "We enjoy a disease-free status in relation to foot and mouth disease in Australia", said Agriculture Minister Warren Truss. "It is very important to our clean green image and we are determined to protect it." But for how long? Indeed, is it already here? This week it was revealed that in Argentina, a major beef producing and exporting country, the Argentine Government, in cohorts with the industry, had been covering up an outbreak of foot and mouth disease since it was discovered last December. The revelation brought immediate bans on Argentine meat by the US and the EU. The lessons being learned in Britain the hard way are that intensive mass production for export and the elimination of protection for industries, both driven by globalisation, have played a central part in the spread of disease. Essentially the move away from local food production and into global trade has exacerbated the problem. Instead of being raised, slaughtered and consumed locally (as in Australia, many abattoirs have been closed in Britain), animals are reared in vast herds, fattened on imported feed, carted for slaughter to distant abattoirs and shipped all over the world. Thus disease spreads with incredible speed. In Britain, the crisis has moved the Blair Government to postpone a planned election until things look brighter. But, as with the Howard Government, infected with its own electoral disease as a result of policies supporting deregulation and globalisation, Blair will have a big problem finding any light on the political horizon. For example, two weeks ago, in an emergency meeting between Blair and the National Farmers' Union, the Union's President Ben Gill urged, "You must not abandon us." He said, "the Prime Minister stressed that we will work through this together and that the government would put in all the resources needed to rid us of this dreadful scourge." Things changed dramatically in the course of a week. Farmers are now barricading themselves on their farms, refusing to allow their remaining herds to be slaughtered. Clearly what is needed is a change in policy away from the free market free-for-all that is seeing global corporations enjoying unfettered profit- making at the expense of local industries, jobs and the environment. Minister Truss's "clean green" is a dangerous delusion. If such a political and economic turn around is not put in motion, Australia also will find out the hard way that you can't have your globalisation and eat it too.