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An Agricultural System Gone Mad
Food Poisoning as Background Noise
by RICHARD MANNING

A friend of mine was uncharacteristically cheery during the holidays, an anomaly he finally explained: "I made a bunch of money shorting Wendy’s."

He’s a day trader. Translated, his explanation means he cashed in by betting the panic from mad cow disease would turn fast-food company stocks into downer animals. The message here is that our culture has become so predictably frenzied that people can make money betting on stampedes.

Orange alerts, airport barricades and frothing at the mouth about a vanishingly obscure disease of cattle — these are the trappings of what some label a "culture of fear." I wish we were, but I think there is a subtle and important line to be drawn here between fear and panic. The latter implies bug-eyed, bovine, bellowing hysteria, and mad cow disease illustrates the point. We are not a culture of fear. We are a culture of panic.

The short selling of fast-food stocks, killing of calves and regulatory umbrage are all panic reactions. No American has contracted mad cow disease in this country, let alone died. By comparison, three common food-borne bacteria — salmonella, listeria and toxoplasm — kill 1,500 Americans a year, yet food poisoning is background noise not worthy of a headline. Panic is a short-term, irrational response, and there simply is nothing to panic about in our beef supply. There is, however, something to fear, something to identify as a real and long-term threat that requires a rational response. The madness is not in our cattle, but in our method of raising them.

The disease is a concern because almost 80 percent of the nation’s beef comes through feedlots, which collectively form a remarkably inefficient protein factory. Mostly, this system’s raw material is grain and soybeans. But it gets amped up with protein supplements, which these days could mean anything from rendered household pets to sardines, blood or slaughterhouse waste.

Legally, rendered cattle parts aren’t supposed to be fed to cattle. That’s the practice that can indeed infect cattle with mad cow disease. But as is the case with any large, elaborate and diffuse system with an end goal of profit, regulations slip. Even the federal government admits the ban is too frequently breached.

This feedlot system developed as part of our Rube Goldbergian industrial farm economy that has everything to do with disposing of surplus grain and almost nothing to do with the health of consumers, the well-being of farmers and the health of the land.

We could finish our beef on grass, as some niche marketers are doing in this country. (Given the current panic about mad cow, that would be a pretty niche to occupy. Even my short-selling friend could be bullish on this business.) Grass can’t spread mad cow disease.

But mad cow is not the point; it’s a symptom of a deeper ill. The feedlot system is cruel, wasteful and dangerous. It entails a litany of abuses, but its inefficiencies can be summed in energy use. It takes about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to make a calorie of feedlot beef. Grass-fed cattle require less than a third as much.

This theme plays throughout our food system. Cornell University’s David Pimentel estimates that if the world’s known oil reserves were used only for agriculture and the whole world produced food in the high-energy way we do in the United States, those reserves would be gone in about seven years.

Anyone who does not see the peril to human life in that number hasn’t considered how far we will go to secure oil. I fear that our adventure in Iraq is only the beginning.

RICHARD MANNING’s most recent book, "Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization," will be published in February. Manning lives in Missoula, Mont. He is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.