Putting farmers in charge may be our best hope to control TB

Badgers: they’re not possums. Ben Birchall/PA

The precise locations and date of the imminent badger cull are secret, but the aim is clear: to see if marksmen can shoot and kill badgers humanely and efficiently. If so, a wider cull will follow.

For many farmers, this can’t come quickly enough. Badgers have been blamed for spreading bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) to cattle since the 1970s. The regulations that result in slaughter of infected herds can have terrible financial and social consequences for farmers and their families. Conservationists on the other hand point to the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs’ own Randomised Badger Culling Trial which suggested culling would have a limited effect at best, and would cost more than it would save. An alternative is to vaccinate badgers, cows, or both.

Scientists agree that badgers, England’s largest wild mammal, immortalised by Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, are a significant vector of bTB. But by focusing on badgers, an ulterior question is missed: who has the right to govern nature?

Unlike the government’s failed attempt to privatise the Forest Commission in 2011, this question has failed to ignite public controversy, yet it lies at the heart of Defra policy. Ever since the catastrophe of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001, governments have sought to rebalance the costs of animal disease. Defra estimates that managing bTB costs more than £100m a year, but acknowledge that those with most to gain from taking risks bear the least cost. Disease control policies have perverse incentives too: farmers who do their best to protect their herd from disease go unrewarded while those who act irresponsibly are compensated.

Defra’s approach to dealing with bTB recognises these problems, and it seeks to shift responsibility to farmers, who would then be responsible for planning and financing badger culling within Defra guidelines. The two pilot culls are examples: paid for by farmers, who set up badger-culling companies to decide when and where culling will take place by bringing on board sufficient farmers from local communities. This is a significant shift in the governance of nature and animal disease.

Worldwide this approach has helped eradicate bTB in other countries, and Defra is seeking to apply these lessons – principally from New Zealand – in order to make England TB free. On a fact-finding visit in April, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson returned proclaiming the need to adopt the methods used there which have reduced the number of infected farms from 1,400 in 1995 to just 60 in 2012.

This has been attributed to poisoning possums – the main vector of bTB in New Zealand. Significantly, these operations are controlled and organised by a company owned and funded by farmers. TB-Free New Zealand receives 55% of its funding from farmers, with the rest from regional and national government. Farmers have responsibility for bTB: they have driven down management costs, set up regional advice boards, and established new regulations to prevent the disease spreading.

Possum poisoning is not without controversy in New Zealand, but cultural attitudes to wildlife vary considerably between our two countries. The possum – an import from Australia – is responsible not only for bTB but also the decimation of native Rata trees and birdlife like the symbolic Kiwi. Killing possums to eradicate bTB also helps these native species survive, sustaining ideas of nationhood and New Zealand’s “100% pure” natural national identity. Farming is a significant part of New Zealand’s economy, and fears that bTB-free competitors such as Australia might usurp its market position are taken seriously. Fighting bTB in New Zealand is a national effort, and a farmer-led bTB control strategy works because it supports, rather than destroys, native wildlife and a vital national industry.

The lack of veterinary services in New Zealand (the first vet school was not established until 1963) meant that farmers have a long history of collectively organising and managing animal health services. This participatory ethos was part of the very first attempts to eradicate bTB in the 1960s, so when the NZ government wanted to step away from managing bTB, putative institutional structures to do so were already in place.

In England, partnership governance has been very limited, with successive governments reluctant to hand control to farmers. Instead politicians defer to scientific experts in order to distance themselves from politically unpopular decisions. Endless policy changes, delays and prevarication combined with worsening disease levels have meant farmers have felt increasingly isolated and unimportant, and have lost trust in government.

The practical limitations of field science combined with social and political influences over the way science is conducted has meant farmers have questioned its objectivity. They have little faith in scientific solutions to bTB, when scientific evidence appears at odds to their own experiences.

By contrast, the standpoint of “user pays, user says” in New Zealand has driven innovation rather than conflict and fatalism. The governance structures of TB-Free New Zealand allow farmers to create their own rules of responsible farming, based more on social norms than evidence. Vets and epidemiologists have had the space to experiment and innovate with diagnostic tests and control measures. Free from the restrictions of bureaucratic, standardised disease control regimes handed down through EU regulations that have hamstrung the English approach, in New Zealand control measures are adapted to different places and circumstances, with farmers brought on board.

Animal disease control programmes are products of quite specific social, cultural and economic circumstances. They reflect what is possible and acceptable in specific places at specific times. Importing a successful programme from one country to replace a moribund programme in another may appear attractive. But the very different circumstances mean that Defra are likely to find New Zealand’s solution provides no quick fix here.

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