Hoof-and-mouth crisis shows how far we’ve come

Published June 1, 2001

The twentieth century was characterized by economic and technological change of unprecedented rapidity as shown by all economic indicators.

The noneconomic indicators are just as spectacular: life expectancy, health, and increases in per-capita food supply, which more than accommodated population growth virtually all “experts” believed could not be fed. The developed and developing worlds alike added nearly 30 years in average life expectancy . . . and strange as it may seem, the longer we live, the lower percentage of our lives we spend with disabilities.

Agriculture had the additional challenge of putting nutrients into the soil to feed plants, so crops could be grown to feed the growing population. Paradoxically, these accomplishments are largely denied, if only by implication, and the science and technology that allowed them to happen have been under attack for almost the entire century.

The alleged dangers of modern life have become conventional wisdom to large segments of the population, and nowhere is that more true than in agriculture and food supply. This is clearly evident in a multitude of responses to the hoof-and-mouth disease crisis–attributed to some fault of modern agriculture, which could allegedly be cured by a return to a more benign, eco-friendly organic agriculture.

Living in the past is not progress

Prior to the twentieth century, humans never had consistent access to clean water and clean, adequate, nutritious food. Drinking water in the wild today, or by our hunter-gatherer ancestors in the past, can cause “beaver belly” (giardiasis) or be a source of microorganisms derived from moose, ducks, and geese.

Tularemia (a disease related to bubonic plague) ravaged populations who regularly handled game and fur-bearing animals. Wild animals or their remains can be infected with such diseases as rabies, toxoplasmosis, hemorrhagic fevers, leptospirosis, brucellosis, anthrax, salmonellosis, and lethal anaerobic bacteria–gangrene, botulism, and tetanus–all of which can be transmitted to humans.

The history of agriculture is a history of plant and animal diseases that were a regular and largely inseparable part of our food supply. The aflatoxins that infect grains such as maize and rye have brought misery to countless millions of our ancestors and still plague the world’s poorest populations. The best estimates today are that 40 percent of the loss of healthy life-years in the world result from food-borne mycotoxins.

It was the Industrial Revolution and modern chemistry that brought us clean water, and it was modern agronomy and science and technology that brought us consistent, adequate, clean, healthy food year-round.

Prior to the 1920s, hoof-and-mouth disease was almost an annually recurring threat to livestock everywhere. Modern animal husbandry has allowed for the creation of relatively disease-free herds that are highly productive of meat and milk and greatly contribute to human health in developed and developing countries.

The United States has not had an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease since 1929, while the disease remains endemic in poor areas in Central Asia, Africa, and South America. It was more prevalent before modern high-density husbandry and remains endemic only in areas of less-developed, low-density husbandry. It is ridiculous for critics of modern agriculture to blame modern practices for hoof-and-mouth disease.

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 simply to contain the disease and accept vastly less-productive herds, producing less meat and milk to consume, as is the case in many poor countries today.

Modern agriculture and husbandry, as any human endeavor, merit constructive criticism and can be further improved. But using any crisis as a basis for attacking modern methods is wrong.

Thomas R. DeGregori is a professor of economics at the University of Houston and author of Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense, forthcoming in June 2001.