The cattle culture and its long shadow
Posted by metaphorical on 10 January 2007
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the U.N. report, “Livestock’s long shadow,” that describes the horrific environmental consequences of what Jeremy Rifkin calls “the cattle culture.” I mentioned Rifkin in that post, but I don’t think his essential contribution to this debate is appreciated enough. Without Rifkin’s book, Beyond beef : the rise and fall of the cattle culture, I suspect there would have been no Howard Lyman on Oprah, no Fast Food Culture, no Supersize Me.
I hadn’t looked at the book much since I first read it, not long after it was published in 1992. Every year I chose one big summer nonfiction book. I would read it over a single long July weekend spent with my friends Chuck and Gretchen at the annual Winterhawk bluegrass festival in upstate New York, just west of where the Catskills give way to the Berkshires. Looking over the book, I shouldn’t be surprised at how well it holds up—how well Rifkin had already learned the lessons that the U.N. would try once again to teach, a decade and a half later.
Our picture of cattle is formed by images like the bucolic beasts grazing in fields alongside highways; the reality of industrial beef couldn’t be more different. I don’t think I can do better than to let Rifkin talk to us in his own words. Here then are just a few snippets from chapter 27, “Ecological Colonialism.”
Still, in all of the ongoing public debates around the global environmental crisis, a curious silence surrounds the issue of cattle, one of the most destructive environmental threats of the modern era. Domesticated cattle are responsible for much of the soil erosion in the temperate regions of the world. Cattle grazing is a primary cause of the spreading desertification process that is now enveloping whole continents. Cattle ranching is responsible for the destruction of much of the earth’s remaining tropical rain forests. Cattle raising is indirectly responsible for the rapid depletion of fresh water on the planet, with some reservoirs and aquifers now at their lowest levels since the end of the last Ice Age. Cattle are a chief source of organic pollution; cow dung is poisoning the freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams of the world.
Since 1960 more than 25 percent of the forests of Central America have been cleared to create pastureland for grazing cattle. By the late 1970s two-thirds of all the agricultural land in Central America was taken up by cattle and other livestock, most of it destined for export to North America. While American consumers saved, on average, close to a nickel on every hamburger imported from Central America, the cost to the native environment was overwhelming and irreversible. Each imported hamburger required the clearing of 6 square yards of jungle for pasture….
So the powerful economic engine here is consumers saving 5 cents? Not exactly.
The creation of a vast cattle complex in Central America has enriched the lives of a select few, pauperized much of the rural peasantry, and spawned widespread social unrest and political upheaval. Over half the rural families in Central America—35 million people—are now landless or own too little land to support themselves, while the landed aristocracy and transnational corporations continue to gobble up every available acre, using much of it for pastureland.
In Costa Rica, the landed gentry cleared and enclosed 80 percent of the tropical forests in just twenty years, turning half of the country’s arable land into cattle pastures. Today 2,000 powerful ranching families own over half the productive land of Costa Rica. They are grazing nearly 2 million cattle on the land.
It’s not about the nickel-cheaper hamburger, it’s that the very powerful interests of agribusiness, which wants us to watch commercials about how happy cows are but not the ways they are wreaking havoc upon the world. And not just in places like Costa Rica.
An earlier chapter in Beyond Beef, entitled “The Beef Trust” describes how the cattle industry grew alongside the railroad; how by 1880 five companies controlled most of the slaughtering, packing, and distribution (“the Beef Trust”); how by 1920 the red meat industry was the nation’s second-largest employer. Meat and dairy products are the profit centers in supermarkets. And so all those interests are powerful advertisers in newspapers and magazines as well. It’s no wonder the New York Times only rarely notices the ravages of the cattle culture.