|January 12, 2003: A
friend of mine was uncharacteristically cheery during the holidays,
an anomaly he finally explained: “I made a bunch of money
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 toxoplasma -- 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
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
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.