Beefy Industry

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In his book Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, Richard Robbins weighs the environmental costs of a staple of the US diet: beef. In mathematical number of calories, beef is an inefficient food that requires huge food input. Cattle feed accounts for 80% of US grain production and about half of US water consumption. This inefficiency is magnified as other costs stack up: overabundant cattle manure, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, deforestation and land degradation, and fossil fuel consumption are just a few. (Robbins, 1999)

A Texas Longhorn cow. (between Bryan and Houston Texas). Photo by Ed Schipul. (Wikimedia Commons)

Beef production seems as fundamental to Americana as the cattlemen and railroads that made it possible. Other American icons didn’t fare so well: Bison were slaughtered nearly to extinction and the Native Americans of the great plains were hunted by the U.S. Army for control of grazing land. The same disaster unfolded in South America in the form of rainforest deforestation. In Mexico, 60% of productive land is grazed by cattle despite “more than 50 percent of its population never consumes animal products” (Robbins, 1999, pg 232.) Newfangled tech like assembly-line butchery, refrigerated shipping, and eventually fast food restaurants paved the way for environmental carelessness on an ever greater scale.

The huge input cost makes beef a luxury of industrialized countries, but more importantly, the land degradation isn’t something developing countries can risk. When this industrial process was introduced in Africa the intention was to support the local economy with exported beef, however it failed when land simply became too degraded to use. (Robbins, 1999)

What does sustainable beef look like? Robbins concludes it can only be done with an ‘agroecological model’ rather than the current manufacturing approach. One proven model is the Mayan system of rotating forest gardens which attracted game animals, so maybe traditional agriculture can help save the Western hemisphere from being trampled.

Animated sequence of a buffalo (American bison) galloping. Photos taken by Eadweard Muybridge (died 1904), first published in 1887 at Philadelphia (Animal Locomotion). Animation by Waugsberg, 2006-7-16. (Wikimedia Commons)

Works cited:

Robbins, R. (1999). Global problems and the culture of capitalism. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.


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