March 28, 1996
There's a sour irony to the fact that it's taken the extremely rare "mad cow disease," which has thus far killed a very small number of people in the United Kingdom, to raise the alarm about the consequences of intensive meat and milk production, which in 150 years has destroyed much of the world's ecological balance and impoverished or otherwise ruined the lives of millions.
The U.S. government, of course, maintains that no American cattle are infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the technical name for mad cow disease. In fact, the disease may have appeared in the U.S. before the outbreak in England. According to a January 1994 story by Joel Bleifuss in the magazine In These Times, a University of Wisconsin veterinary scientist discovered an outbreak of spongiform encephalopathy at a mink farm in Wisconsin in 1985. The mink had been fed a protein supplement made from rendered cows that had supposedly died from "downer cow syndrome."
Intensive milk and meat production inevitably produces problems. Take Monsanto, which has spent many years and a billion dollars or two developing recombinant bovine growth hormone to increase milk yield in dairy cattle. Inject BGH into cows twice a week and the milk yield grows by up to 20%. But with the artificially increased milk production, the cows need the infamous protein supplements made from rendered cows and sheep, thus opening the way to diseases such as mad cow that can transfer to humans.
University of Georgia biologist David Wright Hamilton once wrote that an "alien ecologist observing . . . Earth might conclude that cattle is the dominant species in our biosphere." The modern livestock industry and the passion for meat have radically altered the look of the planet. Today, across huge swaths of the globe from Australia to the Western plains of the United States, one sees the conquest landscapes of the European mass meat producers and their herds.
The military dictators who came to power in Brazil in the early 1960s hoped to convert the Amazonian rain forests that cover more than 60% of the country to cattle pasture and thus make Brazil a major beef producer on the world market. A speculative frenzy ensued, with big companies acquiring million-acre spreads that they promptly stripped of trees to get tax write-offs and kindred subsidies from the junta. Within a decade or so, degraded scrub land had yielded money to the corporations but few cattle, and none of these could be sold on the world market because they were diseased. Indeed, the Amazon is a net beef-importing region. Meanwhile, many of the 2 million people who lived in the rain forest have been evicted.
Such are the assaults on the environment and the poor. By 1990, about half of all American range land was severely degraded, with habitats along narrow streams the worst in memory. Australian pastures show the same pattern. In South Africa, overgrazing has made 7 million acres useless for cattle and is rapidly taking a toll on another 35 million acres of savanna.
Humans are essentially vegetarian by physical constitution. Insatiate meat-eating brings heart disease, stroke, cancer. The enthusiasm for meat also produces its paradox: hunger. A people living on cereals and legumes for protein needs to grow far less grain than a people eating creatures that have been fed by cereals.
Over the past quarter of a century, governments, prodded by the World Bank, plunged into schemes for intensive grain-based meat production, which favors large, rich producers and penalizes small subsistence farmers. In Mexico, the share of cropland growing feed and fodder for animals went from 5% in 1960 to 23% in 1980. Sorghum, used for animal feed, is one of Mexico's largest crops. At the same time, the area of land producing the staples for poor folk in Mexico--corn, rice, wheat and beans--has fallen relentlessly. Mexico feeds 30% of its grain to livestock--pork and chickens for urban eaters--while 22% of the population suffers from malnutrition.
Multiply this baneful pattern across the world. Meanwhile, the classic pastoralists who historically have provided most of the meat in Africa with grazing systems closely adapted to varying environments are being marginalized. Grain-based livestock production inexorably leads to larger and larger units and economies of scale, in a kind of world beef gulag, one of whose consequences is now causing such panic in Britain.
Alexander Cockburn wrote an essay on the history of meat-eating and its consequences in "Dead Meat", a book of journals and paintings of American slaughterhouses by Sue Coe, just published by Four Walls Eight Windows Press.