Concerns about the threats to food and agricultural systems, and to well-loved landscapes and green spaces, from animal and plant diseases have been an ongoing theme in Britain for many years, and have received much media coverage in recent weeks. This media coverage has focussed largely on the eventual and much-debated piloting of the badger cull by the UK Government, aimed at reducing the spread of Bovine Tuberculosis and therefore ameliorating its effects on cattle and the resulting financial losses for farmers. The spread of ash dieback and other tree diseases have also been an area of increasing interest throughout the year, quietly simmering in media coverage and public discourse. Not to mention frequent discussions of swine flu, bird flu and other potential human pandemics.
A key point of contention in the media coverage of the badger cull is the extent to which the policy can be justified by the current scientific evidence (for example, see here). And indeed this has long been the terms on which this debate has rested in government. Furthermore, substantial efforts to collect the necessary data to justify or rule out that badger cull policy, including the controlled trials overseen by Lord Krebs in the 1990s, have proved inconclusive, or have been claimed by both sides of the debate as evidence in their favour. In many corners of the media, the scientific evidence is seen as insufficient to draw firm conclusions on the likely effectiveness of a cull or even to determine baseline figures such as the number of badgers in an area in order to assess the outcomes of the current pilot.
A recent paper by Steve Hinchliffe and colleagues in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, has gone further than challenging merely the evidential basis for such approaches to dealing with the spread of disease, by questioning the very assumptions about and geometries of disease on which they rest. The destruction of ‘pathological’ badgers and infected trees are both illustrative of attempts to contain the spread of disease; to limit the geographical extension of diseased, unhealthy bodies. For Hinchliffe and colleagues this approach has a distinctive and fixed geometry, which they argue is out-dated and misguided.
The authors offer three critiques of enclosure as a practice of biosecurity. Firstly, they contend that borders between different species, environments and geographical areas are necessarily permeable for “life to live”. They act as contact points which can be enriching as well as threatening. Secondly, they argue that the containment of life is no guarantee of safety as there can be multiple threats to biosecurity from within any given population or group. Finally, Hinchliffe and colleagues critique the theories of disease on which approaches to containment are based, with their assumptions that disease occurs when new pathogens cross into a population. They argue, in contrast that disease does not always emerge from outside of population, but rather is often already present, emerging instead through a complex set of mutations and translations.
As a result these authors advocate an understanding of and approach to disease which recognises the existence of pathogens in all forms of life. For them it is most important to be aware on a much more fine-grained level of how different organisms circulate, through trade and other forms of travel, and how they are entangled in relationships with other species and populations in different ways and with different levels of intensity. This fine-grained analysis would be likely to recommend localised ways of dealing with the problems of Bovine tuberculosis or Ash dieback which are based on a detailed understand of multi-species interactions, in contrast to the national level policies based on large data sets which are currently pursued. They would advocate an approach not about building and securing borders, but exploring the rich interactions occurring in the borderland’s of our food and trade systems.
Steve Hinchliffe, John Allen, Stephanie Lavau, Nick Bingham & Simon Carter, 2013 Biosecurity and the topologies of infected life: from borderlines to borderlands Transactions of the Society of British Geographers 38 531-543
Badger cull: first photo of shot animal emerges The Guardian, 16 September
In pursuing the badger cull, the government is being anti-science The Guardian, 26 August
Badger cull: key questions answered The Guardian, 27 August
Somerset badger cull numbers quizzed in the commons BBC News, 13 September
Ash dieback spreads to Minehead woodland BBC News, 13 September