The miracle of American agriculture

Posted: Jan 08, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Putting aside the question of the quality of life of the animals involved (American agriculture isn't always pretty), the increased efficiencies have made it possible to feed more people, putting the lie to predictions three decades ago that the planet would inevitably be afflicted by mass starvation. The new productivity also makes it possible to produce more food on less land, preserving, by the Averys' estimate, more than 16 million square miles of wildlife habitat since 1950 that otherwise would have been plowed under. Enviros should be dancing among the biotech corn rows.

There are three major legs to the Green Revolution: genetic improvements, both crossbreeding and biotech, that increase yields and make crops heartier, thus reducing the need for pesticides (between 1996 and 2000, biotech cotton, for instance, obviated the need to spray nearly 3 million pounds of pesticide annually); synthetic fertilizers, which prevent the sort of soil depletion that created the Dust Bowl in the 1930s; better and safer insecticides and weedkillers that increasingly make it possible to forego the plowing that creates erosion and environmentally harmful runoff.

Turning our backs on these advances in favor of "organic" agriculture, as the mad-cow hysterics want, would be folly. In Denmark in the mid-1990s, a commission studied the effects of a potential all-organic agricultural mandate, and found it would reduce Danish food production by roughly half. Eliminating synthetic fertilizer everywhere, meanwhile, would mean keeping 7 billion to 9 billion cattle globally, instead of the current 1.2 billion, just to get the necessary manure.

Ogden Nash famously observed, "The cow is of the bovine ilk/One end is moo, the other, milk." Despite the mad-cow scare, American agriculture does moo, milk and much else better than they've ever been done. Hold the hysteria. Try satisfaction instead.