|Montréal, 7 juillet 2001 / No 85|
by Pierre Desrochers
The alleged dangers of modern agriculture have become the conventional wisdom of an increasing segment of the population. This was particularly evident in the case of the British foot-and-mouth disease(1) crisis and the bureaucratic overkill that ensued.
Despite popular hysteria and the following political response, no one can
deny that all data demonstrate that modern agriculture has been a tremendously
beneficial endeavor. As the economist Thomas
DeGregori points out in latest book, Agriculture and Modern Technology:
A Defense, living in nature was not as healthy as most people usually
Drinking water in the wild often caused
An old disease
The foot-and-mouth epidemic is no exception. Prior to the 1920s, this disease was almost an annually recurring threat to livestock everywhere. It was only modern animal husbandry that allowed for the creation of relatively disease-free herds. The US has not had an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease since 1929, but it remains endemic in the poor areas of the world from Central Asia to Africa and South America.
Some further historical perspective on cattle diseases will shed more light on the topic. In the recently reprinted The Animal Food Resources of Different Nations(2), the Victorian journalist Peter Lund Simmonds reproduced a letter written to one of his friends by an American missionary in India in the middle of the nineteenth century. I will now quote it in full in view of its pedagogical value:
In India, for at least twenty-five hundred years, we have had a class of village
A few pages later, Simmonds wrote comments that should give some more food for thought to critics of modern agricultural practices.
Certainly the flesh of animals which have died of anthracoid diseases, has proved actively poisonous when eaten in the raw state, but when sufficiently cooked has been perfectly innocuous. Of the fact that there is a large consumption of diseased meat, viz., the flesh of animals affected with pleuro-pneumonia, foot-and-mouth disease, and various febrile affections, no doubt can be entertained by rational people, and it is readily admitted that no obvious mischief results from eating such food; the evidence, in fact, of the unwholesomeness of the flesh of diseased animals is absolutely nil. It is quite true that the idea of eating diseased meat is distasteful – to a sensitive stomach it may be nauseating – but the fact remains, that, with few exceptions, there is no proof that the meat is really deleterious after it has been submitted to the action of fire.Despite the fact that cattle were frequently sick, but did not pose a fatal threat to most people if they were cooked properly, Simmonds echoed the call of his contemporaries when he urged scientists and others to find ways to cure them. Since it was made almost a century and a half ago, this plea has been answered by the advent of practices that are now pejoratively labelled
A false problem
I will leave the final words on the topic to Thomas DeGregori:
The irony is that hoof-and-mouth disease creates a crisis precisely because of the high level of health of our herds. Since the threat to human health is virtually non-existent, we could have chosen to simply contain the disease and accept vastly less productive herds and less meat and milk to consume as is the case in many poor countries today. In poor countries, I have seen scrawny herds where the specific disease was undiagnosed and accepted because there was no other choice. I have been involved in the herculean effort to keep plants disease free using chemical pesticides in order for people to simply have a crop which still may be laden with micro-organisms. Modern agriculture and husbandry, as any human endeavor, merits constructive criticism and can be further improved but using any crisis as a basis for attacking it, is wrong. I invite all such critics to join me in my next foray into regions where people are struggling to survive and where they would be happy to reach a level of development to deal with the problems of modern food production as we are privileged to know it.
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