GW: In the News

Questions — Then and Now: Bugs on the Farm

Read the letter from GW to George Morgan below.
1. What has Washington received from George Morgan and why?
Read an article from the Washington Post below on foot-and-mouth disease to answer the next question.
2. How are the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic today and the Hessian fly problem from the late eighteenth century similar? What about differences?

To George Morgan

Mount Vernon August 25th 1788


The letter which you did me the favor of writing to me the 31st of last month, with a Postscript to it on the 5th of this, came duly to hand; as did a small parcel of wheat, forwarded some time before, by the Post Master general from new York. For you polite attention to me in these instances I pray you to accept my best acknowledgements & Thanks.

With much concern I have heard of the ravages of the Hessian fly on the wheaten Crops in the States East of the Delaware and of the progress of this destructive insect Southerly; But I congratulate with you sincerely on your successful endeavors in the management of your measures &c. to counteract them. If the yellow bearded wheat from a continuation of experiments is found no matter from what cause, to be obnoxious to and able to withstand this all devouring insect [it] must indeed be valuable—but I have paid too little attention to the growth of this particular kind hitherto, to inform you in what degree of cultivation it is in this State, I may venture, at a hazard, however, to add that it is rare: because it is unusual to see field of bearded wheat of any kind growing with us—particularly in the Northern parts of the State, which falls more immediately under my observation. I will distribute the Seed which you have sent me—make enquiry into this matter and communicate the result—begging in the meantime, if any further observations on this insect, and the means of guarding against him should be made by you that you will have the goodness to communicate them to.

Go. Washington

LB, DLC:GW. Letter reprinted in W. W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, vol. 6, January-September 1788 (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia,1997), 474-75. (link to a copy of this letter in GW's letterbook)

Related Story From the Washington Post

Asian Meat Suspected As Source Of Disease

Shipment to Britain Possibly Used in Feed Culled

By T.R. Reid Washington Post Foreign Service Wednesday, March 28, 2001; Page A20

LONDON, March 27 -- A team of British detectives who dug through garbage dumps and tracked thousands of livestock shipments has concluded that the source of this spring's disastrous outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease may have been an imported shipment of tainted meat, possibly from East Asia.

British Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown told Parliament today that some of the infected meat may have ended up in garbage that was later fed to pigs in northern England. The pigs became infected, then passed on the highly contagious virus to seven nearby sheep. When these sheep were trucked to market, they set off a livestock epidemic that has now struck at least four European countries, costing farmers, related industries and governments huge sums.

The Agriculture Ministry's explanation of the outbreak -- still just a tentative conclusion, Brown noted -- demonstrates how difficult it can be for nations to maintain animal health in an era of global food markets and jumbo jet transport.

"I don't know how you can deal with [potentially dangerous] imports," said Julian Wimpenny, a microbiologist at the Cardiff School of Biosciences. "If we're talking about clamping down on illegal imports from unclean countries, we should clamp down. But it's difficult, it's impossible, to stop individual people from bringing in a sandwich in their luggage."

The U.S. government, too, has been worried about how to keep animal diseases from being introduced through imports. The United States has not had a case of foot-and-mouth disease since 1929; foot-and-mouth had not been seen in Europe for 20 years before the current outbreak began in mid-February.

British detectives tracking the nationwide epidemic back to its source surmise that a small pig farm at Heddon on the Wall, England -- just south of the Scottish border near Hadrian's Wall -- bought garbage from a restaurant as animal feed. This may have been a Chinese restaurant using uncertified meat smuggled here from East Asia, the British media said.

In a classic instance of closing the barn door too late, Brown said he has now banned the use of pig swill -- that is, feed made from boiled garbage. But he emphasized that the main issue of the moment is to get control of a blight that seems to be going from bad to worse each day.

The disease has spread to about 700 farms and slaughterhouses in Britain and a scattering of sites in Ireland, Holland and France. The four governments have quarantined affected areas and ordered the slaughter of any animals exposed to the virus. More than 500,000 animals, mostly sheep, have been killed and burned so far to stop the spread.

Foot-and-mouth disease does not cause human health problems; rather, it is an economic plague for farmers. Pigs, sheep and cows that break out with the characteristic blisters on hooves and lips do not give milk or gain weight, so livestock farmers cannot make a profit. The virus spreads literally with the wind.

The British government has ordered the slaughter of tens of thousands of healthy animals as a "firebreak" strategy against the spread of the disease. But that prompted so much outcry from farmers that Prime Minister Tony Blair reversed course today and said he will now consider vaccination, rather than killing, of uninfected herds. Vaccination is avoided because it means the animals carry a form of the virus and therefore are difficult to sell abroad.

Blair's turnabout reflects the political pressures the crisis has posed here. With a national election expected this spring, Blair and his government face increasing charges of incompetence because they have been unable to slow the epidemic.

As the agriculture minister made clear today, the government also has been caught between consumer pressure for cheap meat at the market and the agriculture industry's need to protect domestic herds from imported diseases.

"Cheap food is a subject very close to the government's heart," said Tom Lowther, a livestock farmer in the northern county of Cumbria. "It's a very brave government that will force up the price of food by banning imports from cheap countries."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company