The Political and Spiritual Ecology of Beef

A symbol of wealth, status, and luxury- red meat, and in particular beef, has become a dominate force in cultures and economies around the world. Beef consumption has surged with the advent of fast food and serves as a staple in the Standard American Diet (SAD), a peculiar food culture emerging in the last half century adopted rather unconsciously by the majority of Americans today. Certain assumptions are held by mainstream American culture and persist unquestioned in spite of empirical and empathetic evidence on the contrary. Within these mistaken beliefs lies the ubiquitous sentiment that meat consumption is necessary to maintain health and build protein in the human body. Then there is the commonly held belief that there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking an animals life for any human need or desire (with or without the justification that God put animals on this Earth for humans to dominate and hence it is our God-given right to do what we wish with them) and the naive thought that our beef comes from cows who grazed on grass in open fields; accompanied along with these assumptions is denial. We’d rather not think of the inevitable slaughtering that must have taken place for a cow in a feedlot to reach our dinner plates, or the oil required to infuse fields with fossil-fuel based fertilizers and transport the animals hundreds of miles to the four main slaughterhouses around the country that butcher nearly 80% of the 35 million beef cows sacrificed each year.[1] It is more convenient to simply enjoy the food in front of us and not contemplate the complex dynamics surrounding beef production- the high inputs of nonrenewable energy, the excessive amounts of pollution and environmental degradation, the systemic cruelty embedded in the industry, and the alarming ignorance and indifference to these facts by the dominant majority of society.

There is a profound gap in both consciousness and conscience. A theory has developed over the centuries which propose that Nature is marked by its continuity; as early as the seventeenth century Gottfried Leibniz’s aphorism natura non facit saltus—“nature makes no jump” captured this idea.[2] Although it seems humanity has spawned a culture whose worldview is based not on the laws of Nature but on the fulfillment of trivial human preoccupations. In America, we inherit and perpetuate a romanticized reality that has been crafted over the years to suit our ever-changing needs, and this worldview still reeks of the reminiscent fictions of manifest destiny and laissez-faire economics which have become entrenched in our cultural orientation. We fabricate an illusion which is substituted for reality, thus allowing us to continue to indulge without the least bit of remorse. Our beliefs about the world stray so much from the way the world actually is that we find ourselves wandering aimlessly in a fog of ignorance. Our economic system, especially the beef industry, hardly factors in natural resource constraints and with these exploited raw materials toxic goods are produced and consumed to burden the planet with resource depletion and environmental pollution; the predictable result of a civilization that has become out of sync with the natural order of the planet and the universe. In our pursuit of wealth and sensual gratification we slip into a disconnection from our inner nature and the natural environment, and remain too entranced by the particles of fog-our trivial preoccupations, to realize it. This disconnection from our world illustrates the gap in consciousness. As we have strayed from Nature, man has devolved into a being discontinuous with the world- essentially a self-seeking, self-destructive entity whose collective actions jeopardize the life-support systems of our planet; we can only guess at whether our species will perish before we decimate irrevocably the biodiversity of the planet. Extrapolating the current trajectory of population explosion, resource extraction, species extinction, land degradation, soil erosion, accelerating climate change, and pollution accumulation brings us to the tipping point of Earth’s carrying capacity. A collective lack of focus inhibits a much needed depth to our perspective by preventing us from seeing the definite limits which contradicts our ideas of progress and development. Beef is linked to each and every one of these issues and is emblematic of our culture of counter-intuitive evolutionary impulses. The gap in our conscience is the absence of compassion in the interplay between man and animal; the immense suffering endured by the animal goes unaccounted for. How horrifying from humanity’s point of view would it be if a species of animal with a self-proclaimed higher degree of intelligence enslaved the human race, forced us to live in inhumane and disease-ridden living conditions, feed us an unnatural diet of grains, hormones, and antibiotics to be ruthlessly slaughtered after just 14 months and manufactured into a profitable commodity to be consumed. Yet a Holocaust of deplorable proportions occurs in our country with the roughly 35 million cows slaughtered each year, amounting to a total US consumption of 27 billion pounds of beef- with an average per capita consumption of 67 pounds every year.[3] In the process of commodification, we reduce the complex and curious creature known to us as the cow to a mere piece of meat; the rich inner life of the cow is disregarded and the physical dimension of the animal is the sole determiner in computing its value. Neither is there much respect and appreciation for the cow as a provider of food, even aside from its disputable nutritive potential. In this case, commodification is exemplified through the objectification of the sentient creature, where we ignore their subjectivity and subsequent capacity for physical pain and emotional distress that the animal most certainly possesses.

A prominent issue now is that this intergenerational crafting of reality, which has typically been the task of enduring cultural traditions, has buckled under corporate pressure and is now an enterprise like any other. The corporate food establishment, specifically the industrial beef market, has been capitalizing on our desires and manipulating our minds through advertisements and front groups which serve to flood the population with propaganda- false notions of safety and health regarding the consumption of beef, warping our relationship to the commodity.[4] Although the ways in which we relate to beef are not simply determined by propagandists or the overarching norms of society; depending on your cultural heritage or personal prerogative your relationship to beef as a commodity, and indirectly to cows as a species, varies greatly.

Beginning with our own culture, Americans generally relate to beef as a food item fit for human consumption. A commodity designed, developed, and delivered to satisfy our demand and desire for flesh. Consequently, our attachment to an object of perceived pleasure initiates defensive reactions and denial when another conscious individual offers up information that logically would compel most compassionate human beings to adapt their dietary habits in light of this new information. Whether it is the health-compromising effects of regular beef consumption or the immense environmental footprint of the production of beef, there is a growing consensus among alternative health doctors, animal welfare advocates, and ecologists who propose that both human, animal, and planetary health and wellbeing could be improved if we shifted away from an industrial model of beef production that is fundamentally unsustainable and unsound.[5]

The history of cattle husbandry reveals one of the longest enduring traditions of humanity as domestication of the animal stretches back 8,000 years, occurring in Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and Sub-Saharan Africa simultaneously.[6] The cow was a suitable animal to domesticate because it offered us a sense of security, as the animal was able to provide milk, meat, clothing, and labor. For the vast majority of those years cattle were raised by allowing herds to graze on grass; there was an intimate connection between the herders and the herd, each being dependent on the other for survival. The herders led their herds to new pasture to prevent overgrazing and were attuned to the needs of the animals. Fast forward several thousands of years and this relationship changes with the Industrial and “Green” revolutions; mechanization and chemical inputs become standard practice as the rearing of cattle shifted from a livelihood centered on subsistence to an enterprise bent on profit maximization. A once symbiotic relationship has been replaced with one that is exclusively exploitative; the bond that joined people and cattle together for generations unraveled over the 20th century and a despicable form of nonhuman slavery assumed its place.

The conventional production model for beef in modern America, and increasingly worldwide, is the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs); a venture which eerily resembles the concentration camps of World War II. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines CAFOs as “agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. CAFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland”.[7] A CAFO owned by Simplot Cattle Feeding in Grand View, Idaho has the largest holding capability in the United States, with a capacity of 150,000 cattle on only 750 acres of land.[8] This is equivalent to roughly 128,000 cattle per square mile; in comparison the US has only 84 people per square mile (Singapore- 18,645, India- 954, UK- 650, and China- 365).[9]  The impacts on the local environment are numerous: soil compaction and erosion, land desecration and desertification, and soil and water pollution. The high volume of wastes produced in CAFOs incurs disposal costs as the land has virtually no microbial capacity for manure to be composted into soil. Wastes often are illegally dumped into streams but two common disposal practices are open air lagoons and utilizing CAFO manure as a soil amendment on conventional agricultural fields. Lagoons a major source of methane as it tends to form a crust on top culturing anaerobic bacteria; also the lining is either inadequate to prevent leaking or absent altogether.[10] The manure produced from CAFOs is not your ordinary farm fresh manure and it’s usefulness as a fertilizer is suspicious; it seems like industry ploy to reduce their disposal cost by creating a new commodity out of a burdensome by-product of beef production. The waste contains a slew of chemical residues- hormones, antibiotics, and a host of disease-causing pathogens. The EPA admits that “current regulations do not sufficiently restrict pathogen exposure, [and also] that Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) present in the solid [manure] contaminate the environment as runoff and groundwater infiltration.[11] Inevitably animal wastes flow into nearby watersheds, reducing the water quality and spurring eutrophication; a process which occurs when aquatic ecosystems are overloaded with organic nutrients and subsequent algal blooms consequently decrease dissolved oxygen levels, killing fish and other aquatic animals. On a global level, ruminant livestock produce about 80 million tons of methane annually, accounting for about 22% of global methane emissions from human-related activities. In the U.S., cattle emit about 6 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere, which is equivalent to about 36 million metric tons of carbon.[12] The unsustainable nature of this production process is rivaled only by the devastating deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon brought about by cattle ranching. Roughly 25,000 square kilometers or 6 million acres of the Amazon rainforest is cut down every year for grazing cattle.[13] An estimated 70% of deforestation in the Amazon is caused by cattle ranches and for every quarter-pound fast-food hamburger that comes from the rainforest, 55 square feet of rainforest is destroyed.[14]The first step in this process is known as slash and burn; huge areas of the forest are set on fire to be cleared for pasture for cows that are predominantly for export to satisfy United States and European demand.

Beef production makes evident our misappropriation of value; globally we value beef as a commodity more than we value the biodiversity found in tropical rainforest ecosystems, more than the stability of our climate, more than human health and animal welfare. Annual prices for beef in 2009 averaged $4.26/pound, up from $3.75/pound in 2003 after the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known popularly as Mad Cow Disease. The presence of BSE in the US food supply resulted in increased regulations on the industry, imposing additional costs on beef production and meat processing sectors to ensure safety. Although high US domestic demand for beef coupled with comparatively low supplies minimized the loss of projected profits and caused little to change in the industry. In the US it is legal, even after the discovery of BSE, to feed cattle the leftover waste of slaughtered livestock under the guise of food supplementation. Cows, who are by nature herbivores and not cannibals, are given feed which may include central nervous tissue of other cows who may be infected with BSE, if that occurs the cow develops the condition; the neurodegenerative disease can be transmitted to humans when the meat consumed by people is contaminated with infected nerve tissue.[15] Just as the industry attempts to justify dispersing wastes from CAFOs on agricultural fields as “soil amendments”, using the by-products of slaughtering as fed for livestock under the illusion of food supplementation displays the degree of perverse greed and negligence commonplace in the beef industry.

With all the known risks and externalities associated with beef production, a price of $4.26/pound appears artificially low; the exchange value (price) does not reflect the true cost and as a consequence consumers are left with a mistaken conception of the proper value of the commodity. Beef producers in the Amazon convert vast amounts of ecological capital through minimal amounts of human capital to extract excessive amounts of economic capital; wealth which is concentrated in the hands of a few and whose benefits rarely trickle down to the average citizen. The ecological capital found in the Amazon Rainforest is derived from the value of ecosystem services: carbon sequestration and oxygen generation, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, watershed purification, and renewable resources; these are provided free by the natural environment and the costs to replicate these services would be astronomical. The human capital in this case is the labor required to set the forest on fire and clear the land for pasture; also included is the labor needed to transport and process the finished product. Economic capital refers to the initial investment required, as well as the capital to pay the wages of workers, and the revenue generated from the sales of the commodity. Much of the value is lost in the production process and can never be fully recovered as ecosystems are irreversibly damaged. To account for the depreciation of ecological capital, the price of beef should be substantially higher to enable more sustainable business practices. There also should be a tax in addition to the higher price which would then need to be reinvested in the ecological capital, say in the form of conservation, preservation, restoration and remediation, to mitigate the depreciation of natural capital. From a social perspective, the production of beef reduces the value of human capital as the health effects of beef consumption include widespread heart disease, cancers, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes. The National Cancer Institute published a study in March 2009 which followed more than 500,000 middle-aged and elderly Americans and found that those who consumed about four ounces of red meat a day were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the next 10 years, mostly from heart disease and cancer.[16] The social cost of beef production is not only found in the consumption of the commodity, but in the dangerous conditions workers operate in the slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities. Immigrant labor is often exploited as many workers are lured to the United States from Mexico by Spanish radio advertisements paid for by U.S. meat companies, which bus the workers to factories in the rural United States.[17] The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that from 2003 to 2007,  the rate of illnesses and injuries for workers in “animal slaughtering and processing” was over twice as high as the national average, and the rate of illnesses alone was over ten times the national average.[18]

The cheap price of beef reflects how our culture (de)values the environment, animals, and human beings. It is made possible by the enormous government subsides for corn and other grain fed to cattle; corn subsidies totaling $4 billion in 2009 alone.[19] Although cattle are not distinguished in this statistic, US livestock consume nearly 70% of the grain produced in America and consume five times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population.[20] In the short-term, producers will continue to supply beef at the current prices as long as consumers demand for low quality, environmentally-insensitive beef remains strong. Government regulations which would require environmentally-sound and humane production practices prove politically infeasible and increasingly unlikely as the regulatory agencies such as the USDA and FDA become infiltrated by industry representatives. Over the long-term, this unsustainable form of beef production has an inevitable collapse ahead of it; whether it is from the depletion of fossil fuels that the industry is highly dependent on for fertilizer and transportation, from water shortages exacerbated by the water-intensive method of factory farming, or from escalating climate change intensified by animal agriculture, it is clear that this form of beef production will undermine it’s own future success by failing to conserve and manage natural resources and industrial wastes effectively. Just as the consumption of beef is self-destructive from the view of health, as it promotes disease and increases the likelihood of death, the production of beef is self-destructive from an ecological perspective, as the current level of natural capital inputs simply cannot be sustained. The economic system of beef in embedded within larger natural systems and spheres: from local ecosystems to regional biomes, from the hydrosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere- all the way up to the biosphere, the global sum of all ecosystems. One main tenet of the biosphere is its nature as a self-regulating system and the fact that the Earth is responding to human activities by producing a climate not suitable for industrial beef production and other unsustainable practices illustrates this principle. Despite there being a foreseeable end for the current industrial model of producing beef, it is necessary to accelerate our shift away from beef consumption and eventually all animal products to ensure a habitable planet for ourselves and for generations to come. If we wait for the Earth to step in and force changes in the industry, the Amazon Rainforest may be completely cleared; global freshwater reserves may be dangerously low with contaminated water exceedingly high, and many species and ecosystems may be on the verge of extinction and collapse as the biodiversity of the planet plummets. Communities organized around collective and strategic resistance can lead the struggle against the exploitation of animals, humans, and the environment embodied by the beef industry. We can unite to oppose unjust “agricultural product disparagement laws”, that give the food industry unprecedented powers to sue people who criticize their products by dramatically shifting the “burden of proof” in favor of the industry.[21] I firmly believe it is within our power as a democratic nation to reclaim authority over industries driven by short-sighted greed and move away from models of food production which are fundamentally unsustainable, unnecessarily cruel, and socially unjust.

[1] [2] [3][4] The National Cattleman’s Association makes the claim that beef can help with weight management, stating: “With the obesity epidemic growing and the baby-boomer generation aging, the benefits of high quality protein like beef have never been more critical” [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]

"The feedlot in Grand View, Idaho is located just 60 miles southwest of Boise, Idaho. The feedlot spans 750 acres. Grand View boasts the largest holding capability in the United States, with a one-time capacity of 150,000 head"

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