One small benefit of the current obsession with foot and mouth disease has been the marked decrease in scare stories on other topics. It seems that as soon as we have something more concrete to worry about, our fascination with artificially manufactured fears wanes. The Times, admittedly, continued to alarm us with the dangers of living near to power lines long after other newspapers had dropped the story. It even gave credence to the physicist Denis Henshaw who says that power lines cause not only childhood leukaemia but also skin cancer, lung cancer, depression and 60 suicides a year. Quite how he knows precisely why those 60 people killed themselves is, of course, a bit of mystery. But apart from this and the odd panic about killer fungi which may be attached to the plummeting Mir space station, our 'Scares and Miracles' column has been relatively quiet.
These days, of course, we must be able to hold identifiable individuals, groups or practices to account when things go wrong. In a blame culture there is no room for random or accidental events. (This is why the Yorkshire train crash presented such a dilemma for the British media, who were left only with the possibility of the driver of the Land Rover falling asleep, or the protection barriers on the bridge being too short – neither of which was sufficient cause for traditional finger-wagging copy.) With the country now almost brought to a standstill by cancellations and travel restrictions in the midst of an absurd, panicky 'we must do everything we can' over-reaction, some culprit, surely, must be available for a public flogging.
What a splendid time, therefore, for that august body, Animal Aid, to seize the initiative and declare March to be 'Veggie Month 2001'. Cynically capitalising on quite distorted impressions of the dangers presented by FMD to the food chain, the organisation declares: "There couldn't be a better time to go veggie. The foot and mouth epidemic is just one more symptom of a meat production system that is in permanent crisis due to the oppressive, squalid and unhygienic way in which it produces and kills animals – about 900 million every year in the UK alone." They conveniently forget, of course, that FMD has been around for centuries. It is an age-old disease which very occasionally makes animals sick, in the way that flu viruses can spread rapidly and bring the human population grinding to a stay-in-bed halt from time to time. It has nothing to do with novel, intensive farming methods. It happens.
The generation of false fears has long been the trademark of the more successful campaign groups. Greenpeace's manufacture of 'Frankenstein food' is already a text book example of how to dull the powers of rationalism with frenzied, emotion-laden imagery and appeals to latent neuroses. Animal Aid follows the same, cynical path. If it cannot achieve its aims though informed debate on the merits or otherwise of a vegetarian diet, it will frighten people into changing their ways. It is only one small step from here to the activities of their more militant sympathisers – those who are prepared to kill and maim people in their misguided defence of the 'rights' of animals.
Less visible in the midst of the recent 'crisis' and its cynical exploitation has been another, altogether more gentle, move to add to the growing ranks of veggie-lovers. It is the government's National School Fruit Scheme which will provide primary school pupils with a free fruit every day.
The scheme relies heavily on the recommendations and assumptions of a WHO report that we should all eat 400g of fruit and vegetables a day to reduce the risk of cancer – a 'finding' which turns out to have rather less empirical support than most people think. But the received wisdom is that fruit and vegetables are 'good' for us, so let's get kids to eat them. In any case, they can't do any harm, can they? Not unless kids feel that they have no room for foods which, unlike fruit, are high in energy sources – essential for their development at that stage of life. And not unless they take the 400g level seriously. The impact of nearly a pound of fruit on a child's digestive system can often be quite dramatic, as those of us who scrumped apples when we were young well remember. And surely this scheme cannot be linked in any way to devious tactics such as those employed by Animal Aid. After all, those responsible for the scheme's development are not vegetarians, are they?
13 March 2001