Mad cow disease has arrived in the United States, but mad-cow hysteria hasn't, much to the chagrin of environmental and animal-rights activists. Ronnie Cummins, head of the Organic Consumers Association, hopes that mad-cow fears fuel a "crisis of confidence" in American food. Great. Maybe we can have a run on the banks and urban riots, too.
The activists hope for a food apocalypse, because they consider American agriculture an ongoing atrocity -- think Saddam Hussein in overalls, wielding hybrid corn as his weapon of mass destruction. What so upsets them is that the United States has avoided the agricultural neuroses of Europe and embraced technological advances in the production of its food. This has made the United States the leader in the "Green Revolution," which during the past 30 years has been a boon for human welfare and the environment. Rather than a fragile edifice about to be brought low by mad cow disease, American agriculture is miraculously productive and safe.
Britain has been the only country to suffer a mad-cow epidemic because it was feeding meat and bone meal from infected cows to other cows, spreading the disease. The United States ended the practice of feeding ruminant meal to cows in 1997, and the recently discovered case of mad cow disease might pre-date the ban. So there is unlikely to be a mass outbreak. For thousands of years, humans have been trading germs back and forth with livestock and have periodically been devastated by animal-borne diseases. In light of this, to have less than 200 people die from the human form of mad cow disease -- the number of fatalities worldwide so far -- would be something of a triumph.
The chief risk from the arrival of mad cow in the United States is that it creates a European-style paranoia about technology that has prompted the Euros to reject demonstrably safe growth hormones in beef, genetically modified crops and other advances. According to Dennis and Alex Avery, the indispensable agriculture experts at the Indianapolis-based Hudson Institute, the pounds of meat produced per acre farmed has doubled in the United States since 1970. The corn yield in the United States has increased from 25 bushels per acre in the 1920s to 140 bushels per acre today. Generally, crop yields have tripled since 1970.