Montréal, 7 juillet 2001  /  No 85  
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Pierre Desrochers est post-doctoral fellow à la Whiting School of Engineering de l'Université Johns Hopkins à Baltimore. 
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 think.  
          Drinking water in the wild often caused « beaver belly » (giardiasis), while populations who handled game and fur-bearing animals had to deal regularly with, among other things, tularemia (a disease related to bubonic plague), rabies, toxoplasmosis, haemorrhagic fevers, leptospirosis, brucellosis, anthrax, salmonellosis, and lethal anaerobic bacteria such as gangrene, botulism, and tetanus. It was the advent of agri-business that brought us clean water and consistent, adequate, clean and healthy food year-round. 
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 « Kamius » (low caste), called Chumars. I seldom, if ever, saw a village so small as not to have at least one family of Chumars in it, and some towns have three hundred families. These people are tanners and shoemakers. Under ancient, as well as modern, Hindoo rule, and under English rule, they have a legal status and a legal right to all dead cattle. 
          These people, the Chumars, are a large and thriving class, and eat all dead cattle, dying from whatever disease. The Hissard district is nearly as large as one half the State of Massachussetts. It is a great cattle-growing district, and a very large Chumar population is found in it. About twenty-two years ago, Dr. Adam Taylor, a distinguished English surgeon, was in charge of the district, and from his lips I heard the following statement: 
          A fatal epidemic broke out in the district among the cattle. Dr. Taylor, by repeated post-mortem examinations, declared that the disease, as far as he could discover, was like a form of typhus often called putrid fever in the human subject. The epidemic raged for months, till forty thousand head of cattle perished; and all these dead bodies were eaten by law, by legal right, by the Chumar population. After the epidemic was over, and these forty thousand head of cattle had all been eaten, Dr. Taylor made a careful examination of the Chumar population, and he could find no traces of any disease among them caused by eating the dead cattle, but on the whole they were more healthy than any other class of villagers. 
          During the last twenty-five years I have examined nearly fifty such cases. I will mention one. In the Hindoo village of Kamius there were twenty-two hundred head of cattle. An epidemic broke out among them, and in five months about six hundred of them died. In this village there are twenty-two families of Chumars, of about eight persons to a family. These families ate in five months about six hundred head of cattle, all dying of a very fatal disease. I visited these Chumars, saw their baskets of meat, saw in every house large earthen pots, filled with meat, on the fire. I saw little children, eighteen months old, sucking small bones of this meat, as little New England children would suck the leg of a roast turkey on Thanksgiving Day. I visited these families after their generous meat diet, and found them all in as good health as any of the people. I have now lived twenty-five years among the Hindoos, I have been in medical attendance on every class (there are some thirty-six classes), and I do not think that even among the Brahmins, the strictest vegetarians in the world, there is better health than among the Chumars, who for twenty-five hundred years have by law eaten all the cattle of India, dying by whatever disease.
     « Simmonds' plea has been answered by the advent of practices that are now pejoratively labelled "agri-business," which have resulted in marked improvements in human health. »
          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 « agri-business, » which have resulted in marked improvements in human health. 
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.
1. It has been usual in North America to refer to foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) as « hoof and mouth disease ». According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) « Foot and Mouth Disease » webpage ungulates have hooves (which are a protective covering of the end of the digits) on their feet. Foot-and-mouth disease does not infect the hooves, but rather the tissues close to them. This may result in loosening of the hoof from the surrounding tissue. Since the hoof consists of dead material it cannot become infected with a virus. Hence the name « hoof and mouth disease » is inaccurate.  >>
2. The quotes given in this essay are excerpted from an abridged version that was published in 1885 under the title The Animal Food Resources of Different Nations, with Mention of Some of the Special Dainties of Various People Derived from the Animal Kindgom, E.& F. Spon publishers, pp. 31-34.  >>
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