The Real Cost of a Hamburger


Do you know what a Big Mac costs? If you say $2.50 or whatever the current price posted at the McDonald’s restaurant may be, you are vastly under-estimating the real price. That’s because $2.50 does not reflect the genuine cost of production. Every hamburger price tag should include a calculation of animal suffering, human health costs, economic and ecological subsidies. None of these bona fide costs is included in the price one pays for a hamburger (or other meats eaten by consumers for that matter).

Unfortunately, assessing the real price of a hamburger is difficult because much of the overhead is hidden from view or simply ignored. Most people do not see the pain of the animals as they are branded, castrated, and slaughtered. Nor are most people fully aware of the multiple hormones and chemicals dumped into feed or directly injected into the animals. Nor have they considered how these high rates of hormone and chemical use may pose risks for humans through the creation of resistance germs and bacteria. While there is a growing awareness of the health costs – including high rates of heart attack, colon cancer, and high blood pressure, resulting from a heavy meat diet – even the best assessments of the health risks are far from complete.

But these costs, while real and significant, pale by comparison to the ecological cost of livestock production. There is no other single human activity that has degraded and destroyed more of the American landscape and perhaps the global landscape as well as our love affair with the cow and the meat-dominated diet. Welfare Ranching – the Subsidized Destruction of the American West, a book I edited along with Mollie Matteson and published by Island Press, attempts to innumerate these costs.

If the real cost of a hamburger could even be minimally assessed, I am certain that every Big Mac is really priceless. How do you put on a price on degraded watersheds? How do you value endangered species that are driven to extinction? How do you account for the real value of top soil washed to the sea? These costs are nearly impossible to calculate but they are a very real cost of livestock production. And I am certain that if the price we paid for a hamburger genuinely reflected its costs, the raising of livestock for food would be seen as foolish as trying to raise oranges in Alaska.

This Land Is Your Land,

This Land is Our Land…

Nowhere is the cost and foolhardiness of livestock production more apparent than on the public lands of the West. The American West is a grand landscape. It is also an arid, rugged, and unproductive landscape. Aridity is important to ponder. The West’s public lands are dominated by North America’s four or five major desert regions – the Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuahuan, Great Basin, and some include the Colorado Plateau as a fifth. Deserts are defined as regions with minimum precipitation and high evaporation – in other words, they are characterized by siring heat, cloud-less cerulean skies, minimum precipitation, and sparse vegetation. Now add in the fact that moisture roughly correlates with forage production – the less wetness a region receives the more land it takes to support a single cow or sheep.

In the West, it takes a lot of land to raise one cow – and it takes even more of the public lands to provide enough forage to sustain a livestock operation. For instance, you can reasonably expect to raise a cow year round on a couple of acres of land in someplace wet and relatively flat, like Georgia, but in the arid and mountainous West you may need 200-300 acres to sustain a cow.

Unfortunately if you are removing enough forage to economically sustain a ranching business, you are not leaving enough to sustain the land’s native wildlife or ecological processes, nor to provide protection for the fragile soils and plant communities. And therein is the problem. It’s ecologically impossible to economically sustain a livestock operation in most of the West if you consider the full ecological costs – statements by livestock advocates to the contrary.

Ecologically Unsustainable = Economically Unreliable

Some may ask how ranching has survived for multiple generations if it has been destroying the West? The answer is complex. First, ranching isn’t surviving – it has been in decline for decades. There are fewer ranchers today than any time since the West was first settled. The land simply can’t sustain as many livestock operations, in part because overall productivity of western landscapes has declined due to the long term degradation by livestock. And many of the ranchers that have remained in business have succeeded by taking on outside employment. The majority of small and medium size livestock operations today can more accurately be characterized as “hobby ranching” since the real income for most livestock operators comes from a job in town.

Still, the reason ranching survives at all is because of huge subsidies – both economical and ecological. A western rancher can only really stand a chance of competing in the global market by transferring most of the costs of production on to the land, its wildlife, and the taxpayer. Taxpayers pay for things like predator control, weed control, disease control (in rancher’s livestock), drought relief, and costly reservoir and irrigation systems that benefit livestock producers.

There are other subsidies that are more subtle and less visible, such as the great cost of providing services to thinly populated and widely dispersed ranches. Taxpayers subsidize ranchers by providing power, mail, school buses, road maintenance, and other public services that frequently exceed the tax contributions of these land owners – in a large part because agricultural lands are often taxed at greatly reduced rates compared to other land ownership – representing yet another subsidy to this small group of business men and women.

Other taxpayer subsidies are difficult to estimate since many financial assistance programs are hidden in multiple ways – for instance, when a federal agency like the U.S. Forest Service fences a campground to keep out the cows, the cost is charged to the “recreation” budget even though there would be no need for fencing in the absence of cows. Or take all of those miles of fencing along western highway right of ways designed to keep cows off the highway – who do you think pays for this? Not the rancher. Granting even these accounting difficulties, conservative estimates put the annual subsidy to just public lands welfare ranchers – who make up less than 1% of all livestock producers – at a minimum of $500 million. If we were to include all livestock producers the costs would be far higher.

One subsidy that some western ranchers possess is access to public land – OUR LAND – and in many instances the most fragile and ecologically diverse lands in the nation.

Wholesale Subsidized Destruction

Despite its unproductive nature, virtually every acre of land that can be grazed by domestic livestock is leased by the federal government to a relative handful of ranchers known as permittees (about 1% of all livestock producers). These men (and a few women) are permitted to graze their animals on these lands for a pittance of the real cost, especially when ecological impacts are considered.

Livestock hooves pound and compact soils, decreasing water infiltration in a land already deficient in moisture. Livestock transmit disease to wild animals, leading to local extirpation as with the demise of many bighorn sheep herds after contraction of disease from domestic animals. Livestock consume stream side vegetation and break down creek-banks with their hooves, destroying aquatic habitat for fish and many other creatures. Indeed, livestock are the prime factor in the destruction of these thin-green lines of water-dependent vegetation known as riparian habitat.

And since more than 70-80% of the West’s wildlife species are dependent to some degree on riparian habitat, the effect of livestock induced riparian habitat losses cannot be understated. And this is no small impact. Some 300 million acres of public lands are leased for livestock production – that’s an area as large as the combined acreage of the eastern seaboard states from Maine to Florida with Missouri thrown in.

The Desert Ranch Land Oxymoron

Livestock are also one of the major consumers of water in the West. How, you may ask? Because nearly all of the West’s limited water is shuttled into irrigation ditches and sprinklers to produce livestock forage like hay or irrigated pasture. Even in California, where the vast majority of the nation’s vegetables and fruits are grown, irrigated livestock forage is the single largest crop by acreage.

The vast majority of water development (storage reservoirs), particularly in the West, is for irrigated agriculture – primarily livestock forage production. Indeed, in the 17 Western states, irrigation accounts for 82% of all water withdrawals from a high of 96% in Montana to 21% in North Dakota. Storage reservoirs for irrigation fragment watersheds; and withdrawals from streams reduce flows and change water quality – all of which are known to contribute to the decline in aquatic species from snails to trout.

Therefore, at least some percentage of water development species endangerment should be considered part of agriculture’s contribution to species losses.

But the economic subsidies pale by comparison to the ecological subsidies. Livestock production may well be the biggest single land use in the United States. Besides the 300 million acres of public lands grazed by domestic animals, there are another 400 million acres of private rangelands throughout the country utilized for livestock grazing. In addition, there are hundreds of millions of acres of agricultural lands that are used for livestock forage production. Last year, for instance, we planted an estimated 80 million acres to feeder corn – with the majority of this corn going to feed cattle. Similarly, large acreage of soybean, hay, alfalfa, and other crops were grown for livestock forage. In reality, most of our farmland is devoted not to the growing of crops fed directly to humans, but for grain and other crops devoted to livestock forage. This means there are hundreds of millions of acres of land that are drenched in pesticides and fertilizers, that many acres of soil erosion, and that many aquifers polluted by agricultural chemicals.

This domestication and alteration of the natural landscape is not evenly distributed, however, and agriculture has not only contributed to significant species loss, but has almost completely shattered some ecosystems. For example, 77 percent of Iowa is now cropland, as is 62 percent of North Dakota, and as is 59 percent of Kansas – essentially eradicating the entire tall grass prairie and most of the mid-grass prairie.

Overall, I estimate that approximately 60-70% of the U.S. land area (excluding Alaska) is devoted to livestock production in one form or another – either for the growing of forage crops, for pasture, or as rangelands grazed by domestic livestock. The ecological footprint of this industry is huge.

SOLUTIONS: Immediate and Long Term

The actual amount of land we need to feed ourselves is surprisingly small. All the vegetables grown in this country are produced on slightly more than 3 million acres of land. Fruit and nut production occupies another 5 million acres. Potatoes and grains are grown on nearly 100 million acres of land – but over 60 percent of the grains, including some oats, wheat, barley, and other crops, are fed to livestock. Obviously, if meat were eliminated from our diets, there would be a shift towards greater grain and vegetable production. Nevertheless, given the inefficiencies of grain conversion to meat by large animals – particularly cows – any increase in acres devoted to grains and vegetables would easily be counter balanced by the more substantial decline in acres used for livestock grain production.

We already know that a vegetarian diet is healthier not only for people but for the land as well. There are numerous obvious solutions. Eating lower on the food chain is one of the single most important acts any person can do to promote global health.

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave?

So what would we do with all those cow-free acres? Imagine a West without fences with growing herds of bison, elk, antelope, and bighorn sheep. Imagine rivers running free and pure. Imagine wolves restored to much of the West. Such a vision is possible, but only if we eliminate livestock from much of the West. Fortunately, on the public lands, such a future is possible – indeed, highly probable.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.


George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

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