Here's My Beef by Tom Duffey
"Imagine how many starving world populations could be lifted out of their subsistent dietary levels if the millions of acres of land devoted to growing corn for livestock feed were diverted to growing food for people."
“Beef! It’s What’s for Dinner!” The commercial makes it such a simple, logical choice; quick and easy to prepare, and relatively inexpensive. As an example, an international fast food chain has recently cheapened beef to an all time low for the 90’s, and a northwest tire dealer gives it away like an insurance agent passes out ball point pens. If only the true costs of that beef were known, I wonder how many people could or would continue to buy into the cost lie of the beef industry.
I was recently stunned by an article in the February 17, 1997, edition of the “High Country News” about the slaughter of the bison (buffalo) in Montana. This is deja vu all over again, under the direction of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (A.P.H.I.S.), a federal agency operating on your federal tax dollars. Should the bison choose food in the grazing lands outside Yellowstone National Park over starvation in the deep snows within the park, they are either shot by agents of the Montana Department of Livestock or sent to the slaughterhouse by park rangers who trap all bison as soon as they cross the northern boundary of the park onto public lands. And why are the bison, whose numbers at the park have been reduced by 25% as a result of this slaughter, sentenced to death? It would seem that the big benefactor is the cattle rancher utilizing the public grazing lands. The justification for slaughter is the claim that buffalo must be killed to prevent the spread of brucellosis from bison back to cattle (cattle from Europe originally brought the disease to the American bison). This claim is refuted by environmental groups, the Park Service, and even by the lack of reasonable substantial evidence from A.P.H.I.S. itself, according to the article. Now where does all this leave the cost of that meatloaf in terms of suffering and life lost, manpower, and dollars consumed, not to mention the loss of that intangible known as quality of life?
Another resident of the West whose existence predates the livestock invasion of the early settlers is the wild horse. Today they are rounded up, using “Judas” horses and helicopters, for an “adoption” program administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Why? Is it because they are competing for their historical habitat with the cattle herds? Articles by the Associated Press and Doug McInnis of the New York Times News Service indicate that many of these magnificent creatures end up at the slaughterhouse door to be butchered and shipped to Belgium to satisfy the European pallet. Is that beef stir fry or steak sandwich with these costs figured in (costs that are never shown on the packaging label) still as appetizing?
Are these the only victims of the powerful and influential cattle industry? (Remember, this industry enjoys great governmental perks and special treatment in terms of grazing permits and bureaucratic favoritism, all enacted in an eastern city whose rangeland is entirely built-over and whose diversity of wild life is impossible to find except at the local zoo.). I think not! The historical annihilation programs of the grizzly bear, the wolf, and the coyote are atrocities of trapping, poisoning and butchering. The ultimate benefactor has always seemed to be the ranchers and their cattle and sheep (and now we can start to add in ostrich, emu and who knows what other new, non-indigenous species of meat on the hoof/foot). Cattle and sheep, imported originally from Europe, are not ecologically compatible with the environs of the fragile high plains. They overgraze these seemingly endless, yet in fact finite landscapes. The original, compatible residents are crowded out via fencing, shooting or just plain destruction of their habitat. Eventually the red meat of the newcomers makes its way to the American dinner plate, adding even more cost to that double cheeseburger in the form of high public health expenditures fighting the effects of atherosclerosis (heart disease), by far the leading cause of death in the U.S. One way or another, you and me, the taxpayers, end up subsidizing this industry and its effects.
Up to this point only our wild neighbors of the natural world have been noted. What about us? Is humanity exempt from this story? No. The Native Americans, as is well documented historically, have suffered greatly. With their understanding of, and close ties with the creatures and cycles of nature prior to European settlements, the Native Americans lived in harmony with nature. Eventually, however, they fared little better than the buffalo, the wolf or the great grizzly bear. Displacement and slaughter, and eventual control of their ancestral lands (now called “prime grazing lands”) by cattle barons like Pete French and John Chisom, have been the Native Americans’ fate. Social, economic and emotional scars exist to this day, heaping even more real costs onto that rump roast and T-bone steak.
Finally, is all this killing perpetrated against the natural world in exchange for beef limited to the United States? Unfortunately not. The Mexican wolf, according to Diane Boyd, renowned wolf researcher, in a recent lecture at Willamette University, has been hunted to virtual extinction in Mexico. Also noted in the lecture are the loose controls exercised by certain provincial areas in Canada regarding wolf kills. And let us keep vividly in mind the relationship between the American fast food industry and destruction of millions of acres of rainforest in South America, with all the habitat loss and species extinction that goes with it. What’s the link? Why, to create more and more grazing land for cattle, much of whose meat is exported north. But that’s not all. Much of that former rainforest land ends up as hardpan after just a few short years when deprived of forest cover and under the relentless impact of grazing. This forces the local ranchers to colonize yet further into the rainforest, repeating the cycle, leaving behind land that supports neither rainforest nor cattle. The cumulative costs of these activities can be measured in terms of global consequences; i.e., changes in climatic patterns affecting rainfall, temperatures, storm patterns, and more.
Grazing is not the only area to be examined, to be sure. Imagine how many starving world populations could be lifted out of their subsistent dietary levels if the millions of acres of land devoted to growing corn for livestock feed were diverted to growing food for people. Man destroys the coral reefs in search of fish and pleasure, denudes the once green forest hillsides, and muddies the rivers and streams with chemicals, silt and livestock excrement. Each and every environmental crisis is in itself not the main problem, but merely a symptom of a much greater ill.
There are two concepts that come to mind out of several that I have been exposed to over the past many years. They both track back to keeping day to day living on a simplified basis. They’re not always easy; at times seemingly impossible. The first is based on the concept of everything in moderation. Sadly, humanity all too often does not seem able to grasp the meaning or spirit of this, choosing instead addiction and consumption; and, make no mistake, addiction goes far, far beyond alcohol or drugs in definition and practice.
The second centers around assumption of individual responsibility. I hope the next time you ponder food choices, you will pause and think about all the destruction, violence and loss that has proceeded (and will follow) that prime rib, veal (a true baby food), or chopped steak dinner. The beef industry is not the ultimate causative force in all that has been noted above. You and I are, as a result of the choices we make.
Tom Duffey, a graduate horticulturist and naturalist, is manager of Naturally Wild in Salem.