Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How Cattle Destroyed a Planet, Part II

Alternatively titled: F*UCK COWS, PART II

Last time we covered a bit of history and religion regarding the cattle industry, so this time let's go over the current state of affairs. What does the picture look like now?

Well, once the wilderness was tamed we were left with a cattle industry that is pretty much the same (except in scale) as what we have today, with one notable exception. Now Americans are the worldwide beef eating champions rather than the British, even though Europe still has about 30 million more cattle than the U.S. Over 100,000 cows are slaughtered daily in the U.S. That’s about 300 per hour - one every 12 seconds 24-7-365. Every week 91% of U.S. households purchase beef in some form or another, and the average American eats 65lbs of beef in a year. We consume 23% of the beef produced in the world even though we only have less than 5% of the population. Today, thanks to British imperialism and American gluttony, cows are the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. The international trade in beef for 2000 was over $30 billion and represented only 23 percent of world beef production. Dairy production is accountable for about another $30 billion. It is a massive worldwide industry that needs huge subsidies and incredible amounts of infrastructure and has social and environmental impacts that reach far into every corner of the globe.

One major logistical problem with maintaining a herd of 1.5 billion animals is of course figuring out how you are going to feed them. In the U.S. over 30,000 ranchers graze cattle on more than 300 million acres of public land - an area about equal to 20% of the land surface area of the lower 48. Anyone who lives in the west and has ever taken a hike in the wilderness has undoub
tedly experienced first-hand the devastation that these animals leave in their wake. Each animal eats its way through 900lbs of vegetation in one month, and they stomp festering mud holes into the ground that collect flies and mosquitoes wherever they go. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that more plant and animal species in the U.S. are eliminated by cattle grazing than by any other factor. The ranchers do have to pay a fee for the privilege of using public lands to feed their pests. The federal grazing fee in 2009 was $1.35 per animal per month. The Reagan administration estimated the market value for pasturing cattle on the same federal lands to be between $6.40 and $9.50 per month. Bit of a discrepancy, no? In 1989 the BLM and Forest Service spent $35 million more on administrating the program than the program took in, not counting the destruction of habitat caused by these stupid animals.

The situation in Central and South America is worse. Most people think that the rain forest is being cleared for the lumber, but in actuality the destruction of this pristine environment is done to clear pastureland for cattle that we can then slather with special sauce and cram into our faces. In the past 50 years more than one quarter of the forests of Central America have been cleared for pastureland. In the same time span around a quarter million square miles of Amazon forest have been cleared for commercial cattle development. It is estimated that for every ¼ lb burger that comes from rain forest cleared cattle it is necessary to destroy ~165lbs of living matter including some 20 – 30 different plant species, perhaps 100 insect species and dozens of bird, mammal and reptile species not counting displaced native populations. Due to this forest clearing and grazing cycle cattle are responsible for much of the soil erosion that occurs worldwide. Grazing is the primary cause for desertification, which is occurring at an unprecedented rate never before seen in human history.

OK, so we have a bunch of cattle that are sinewy and lean from grazing on grasses and other plants that the animal can actually digest, but that’s no good because we want fatty beef. Off to the feedlots we go for an intense regimen of fat building, lack of exercise and corn eating. Kind of sounds like growing up in the Midwest. There are some 42,000 feedlots in the lower 48 alone that take these wiry cattle and beef them up {ahem} to 1100lbs of fat marbled meat. The problem is that cattle are not very good at converting grain protein to animal protein. It turns out that a cow has to consume 9lbs of grain to see 1lb of weight gain. So ~11% goes to make the fatty beef, and the rest shoots out the back end to the tune of about 50lbs of shit per day per cow. You knew we eventually had to talk about crap, didn’t ya? The average feedlot has 10,000 head of cattle which means that the waste generated at a standard feedlot every day is equivalent to a city of over 100,000 people. Anyway, if you remember the protein article humans have a conversion efficiency of ~90% for the same grain. What to do? No problem. Due to technological advances in fertilization, hybridization, pesticides, etc., since WWII agricultural yields have increased by almost 300%. Where does all of that surplus food go? To feed the billion or so undernourished people of the world? Nah. Screw those guys; we NEED more beef, bitches! Yep, it all goes to feed cattle inefficiently.

Here in the United States 106 million acres of farmland are used to grow 220 metric tons of grain for cattle annually. Globally 600 million metric tons of grain is fed to cattle. That means that fully 70% of all U.S. grain goes to feed livestock, or 1/3 of worldwide production. Of course all of these crops need to be irrigated which leads to the inevitable discussion about water. We use over 70% of our fresh water on agriculture. Breaking it down further, around half of the water consumed in the U.S. goes to feed cattle specifically. The water used to produce 10lbs of steak equals one average household’s consumption for an entire year. The water that goes into a 1000lb steer would be enough to float a destroyer, and producing 1lb of beef requires 15 times more water than producing the equivalent amount of plant protein. Adding insult to injury, cattle feedlots account for over half of the toxic organic pollutants found in fresh water. Here’s another one of my pet peeves. We use 70% of our water on agriculture and another 20% on industry, which leaves 10% for residential use. About 50-70% of residential water use goes to landscaping irrigation. In other words we use it to water our lawns. Why do we have lawns? Because Kentucky Bluegrass made excellent pasture for…drum roll please…cattle. Fugginell…

All of this tilling and irrigation of the soil for cattle feed inevitably leads to erosion. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that each pound of feedlot steak results in ~35lbs of eroded soil. Put another way, 85% of eroded soil in the U.S. is directly attributable to cattle and feed crop production. It
is worse in developing countries where forests are cleared and cattle are grazed on marginal soil. Of course the machinery used to do all of this consumes massive amounts of energy and fuel. It is estimated that it takes 1 gal of gas to produce 1lb of beef. So, to sustain the yearly beef consumption of a family of four requires the use of over 260 gal of gasoline. This is equivalent to releasing 2.5 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere or the same as an average car over 6 months. While we are on the subject of emissions, a 400-page United Nations report (entitled Livestock's Long Shadow) from the Food and Agriculture Organization states that cattle farming is "responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases." In some countries cattle are the number one cause of global warming emissions. The production of cattle to feed and clothe humans stresses ecosystems around the world and is one of the top three environmental problems in the world on a global scale.

Who the Hell cares? I love me some cheeseburgers! Can’t live without them. Ahm nam nam nam…Well, if learning about all of the effed up mess that cattle leave in their wake doesn’t deter you from sucking down a couple of porterhouses every week, realize that I haven’t even touched on the health related issues that come from eating so much beef or how the animals themselves are treated in the process. Regarding the latter, I could almost not care less. We are raising these animals for food, and they are part of an industrial assembly line. We might as well just breed them without brains and hybridize them with jellyfish so we can just pour them into a blender at the end of the line. Screw those things. I’ll let PETA get their panties in a wad over how they are treated. As far as health concerns go, I won’t dig too deep into this since the web is literally loaded with resources telling you why slugging down twelve McRibs every week is bad for you. I will touch on a few of the big hitters, though. One of the reasons why our agricultural output has increased so dramatically over the last half century is due to advances in pesticide and herbicide production and formulation. Feed corn is bombarded with these chemicals in order to maximize output per acre, and then the chemical-laden corn is fed to cattle by the ton. Who cares if cattle get cancer? They are going to get shot in the head anyway, right? Well, as it turns out beef is the most dangerous food for herbicide contamination and third in pesticide contamination. One estimate by the CDC is that beef pesticide contamination accounts for ~11% of all cancer risk in the U.S. The high beef diet of Americans tracks directly with an increased rate of heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, breast cancer, arthritis, fatt-arse and a host of other cancers. I think it’s important to mention that the beef Americans crave (because the British told us to) has a high fat content, and that high-fat diet also leads us to circle the drain healthwise. Additionally, the CDC says food poisoning causes over 2000 deaths and 500,000 hospitalizations costing $150 billion in healthcare per year …that’s right, billion. So, let’s sum this up abruptly. We raise an animal that eats our food, destroys our environment, and causes wars then we kill it and eat it and it gives us cancer and heart disease. Sound about right? Mmmm, deeeelish.

On top of everything else, the very word “cattle” kind of weirds me out. Here’s why: What’s a single elk called? An elk, right? What’s a single rabbit called? A rabbit. Right. Same for gorilla, elephant, turkey, lizard, sloth, and every other animal I can think of. But what’s a single cattle called? Cow? Bull? Critter? It’s unnecessarily confusing and annoying. Hey, it’s my blog, Mack.

On a more serious note, I think, generally, people can understand the negative impacts that the cattle industry has on the environment, and that cattle production is grossly inefficient. It should be obvious to anyone that is willing to take even a few minutes to look into it, but there is an underlying tone of entitlement, elitism and, frankly, racism regarding beef production and consumption that never gets spoken about. We make enough food to feed billions of people, but we feed it to cattle instead. Why? To what end? Can any one of my readers look at a steak and say that the resources put into one T-bone are actually worth displacing those resources for someone who literally is on the brink of starvation? I hope not. We read statistics like, “Over 60% of childhood deaths are directly attributed to under nutrition in developing countries”, and we know make enough food to feed them. Instead we still happily give it to cattle and bitch when the price of ground beef goes up by $.05. Oh, here’s another tidbit of information that many people don’t realize. Remember the famine in Ethiopia? In the early ‘80’s when thousands of people were starving every day, the country still exported livestock feed to Europe in order to meet market demand. Sound familiar? It was essentially the potato famine all over again, but nobody mentions that essentially cattle were to blame for another mass starvation. What does that say about humans in general? If an alien civilization happened across the Earth and watched this whole process could you explain to them why this is the current state of affairs? I’m asking because I can’t figure it out, but then I haven’t eaten beef for around ten years now.

When I tell people that I don’t eat beef and tell them why, I usually get a disconnected shoulder shrug and a statement along the lines of: “But I couldn’t live without steak!” What they really mean is that they won't live without it. I think what it boils down to is it is much easier for those of us in the developed world to tell those in the developing countries to have fewer babies than to face the fact that our effing cattle are eating food that could be theirs…for a price of course.

You tell me why that’s OK.


Mark said...

Cattle is not the cause of planetary destruction, it's the fields and fields of corn & soy grown to feed them.

In the new book "Steak" the author reveals that it takes 9lbs of corn to raise 1lb of beef. That is a ridiculously inefficient practise.

What the human race will do out of necessity is stop the REAL culprit of environmental devastation - modern agriculture. Read The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith if you want more.

Vegan/Vegetarian diets are an absurd notion - they're not healthy for humans and they're not healthy for the planet and many vegans are finally waking up to this fact.

The bottom line is that the protein and fat we get from properly-raised (grass-fed) beef and other animal products is among the healthiest food a person can eat and is essential for human health.


Dan said...

Thanks for the comment, Mark, and welcome to The Missing Piece. I appreciate your disdain for modern agriculture, but it seems that you've missed my point a bit. We wouldn't need to grow so much garbage (read: corn and soybeans) if there were no cows. Simply by removing the primary consumers from the equation we can mitigate the inefficiencies, environmental harm and pollution caused by growing their feed. Also, the idea that setting the cattle out pasture is somehow a reasonable solution is a farce. See the article above for the statistics of the devastation caused by the environmentally-friendly, open-range, grass-fed hippie cows.

As far as the strict vegan diet goes, I will admit my ignorance on such matters. However, I will say that humans are the ultimate omnivore on the planet, and our physiology is well adapted to leach the nutrients out of nearly any food source. It would be a poor selective advantage to require an animal suited to live in all environments of the globe such as we are to require any one food source specifically (e.g. cows and milk) regularly. Rather it makes more sense that regardless of what we eat we must consume the essential amino acids and other nutrients that we cannot self-manufacture in sufficient quantity to support our daily functions. My guess is that anyone that is unhealthy from a vegan diet is lacking in one specific area that can be covered by varying the diet slightly without necessitating furthering the cattle cult.