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 England, to raise the alarm about the consequences of intensive meat and milk production. Over the past 150 years the demands of such production have destroyed much of the world’s ecological balance and impoverished millions.
Start today with one giant U.S. corporation, Monsanto, which makes chemicals and agribusiness products. It has spent many years and a billion dollars or two developing recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The purpose of this product is to increase milk yield in dairy cattle. Inject BGH into cows twice a week and the milk yield goes up by some 10 to 20 percent. But crucially, 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 bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), which can transfer to humans.
There are other problems, of course. First, who needs higher productivity per dairy cow when there’s a huge milk glut in the United States? Second, as happened with poultry and now with hogs, BGH accelerates the demise of small producers and the emergence of the industrial dairy conglomerates.
Like any junkie, cows hooked on BGH tend to get sick, mostly with mastitis, an infection of the udder. Treatment of mastitis requires liberal doses of antibiotics. The antibiotic injected into the cow passes on to the human consumer, and thus contributes to the process whereby more and more bacteria are building up greater resistance to antibiotics. Moreover, BGH also causes cows to produce more Insulin Growth-like Hormone-1 (or IGH-1), which has been linked to a number of disorders in humans, including acro-megaly (gigantism in the form of excessive growth of the head and extremities) and an increased risk of prostate, breast, and ovarian cancer. There is also research to suggest that IGH-1 reduces the body’s ability to suppress naturally occurring tumors.
Mad cow disease–a degenerative brain disorder first detected in England in 1986–is a comparative trifle in some ways. Cattle apparently contracted BSE by eating protein supplements made from rendered sheep infected with scrapie, a form of spongiform encephalopathy. Infected cattle become disoriented, suffer seizures, fall down, and die. Scientists believe that consumption of meat from BSE-infected cattle leads to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a fatal neurological disease. The virus may incubate for 30 years. There is no way to detect it or treat it.
The U.S. government, of course, maintains that no BSE-infected cattle have been discovered in the United States. But in fact, the disease may have appeared in the U.S. before the outbreak in England. According to a Jan. 24, 1994 story by Joel Bleifuss in In These Times, Richard Marsh, a veterinary scientist at the University of Wisconsin, was raising the alarm about BSE in American cattle back in 1985. Marsh discovered an outbreak of spongiform encephalopathy at a mink farm in Wisconsin. The mink had been fed a protein supplement made from rendered cows that had supposedly died from “downer cow syndrome.” Marsh believes the cows had actually succumbed to a previously undetected form of BSE. (In 2012, a California dairy cow tested positive for Mad Cow Disease.)
“The signs that these cattle showed were not the widely recognized signs of BSE–not signs of mad cow disease,” Marsh told Bleifuss. “What they showed was what you might expect from a downer cow.” About 100,000 cows a year die from downer cow syndrome in the United States. Most of these dead cows are rendered into protein supplements to feed other cattle. If this is true, the U.S. cattle population may already be infected with BSE and American meat consumers may have already contracted CJD. Still, the U.S. government has done nothing to regulate the contents of animal feed.
Intensive meat production–these days mostly of beef, veal, pork, and chicken–is an act of violence: primarily, of course, an act of violence against the creatures involved. But it is also violence against nature and against poor people. David Wright Hamilton, a biologist at the University of Georgia, once wrote that an “alien ecologist observing… Earth might conclude that cattle is the dominant species in our biosphere.” The modern livestock industry economy 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 of ungulates. Because of romantic ideas of “unchanging” landscapes it is hard to grasp the rapidity of this process, or the degree to which it leaves the land changed forever.
Take California. In the late 18th century, when the first cattle herds arrived in what the Spanish colonists called Alta California, the region presented itself as a Mediterranean landscape, but of a sort that had been extinguished in Europe for many centuries. There were meadows with perennial bunchgrasses, beardless wild rye, oat grass, perennial forbs: 22 million acres of such prairie and 500,000 acres of marsh grass. Beyond this, there were 8 million acres of live oak woodlands and park-like forests. Beyond and above these, chaparral.
By the 1860s, in the wake of the gold rush, some 3 million cattle were grazing California’s open ranges and the degradation was rapid, particularly as ranchers had been overstocking to cash in on the cattle boom. Floods and drought between 1862 and 1865 consummated the ecological crisis. In the spring of 1863, 97,000 cattle were grazing in parched Santa Barbara County. Two years later only 12,100 remained. In less than a century, California’s pastoral utopia had been destroyed; the ranchers moved east of the Sierra Nevada into the Great Basin, or north, to colder and drier terrain.
California is one of America’s largest dairy states, and livestock agriculture uses almost a third of all irrigation water. It takes 360 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef (that’s counting irrigation for grain, trough water for stock, and so on), which is why, further east in the feedlot states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, the Oglalla aquifer has been so severely depleted.
The answer? Drill deeper. Deep-drilling began as a response to the dustbowl disaster of the 1930s, itself a product of farming practices ill-suited to the natural conditions; intensive pumping of the high plains aquifer began after WWII. By 1978 there were 170,000 wells drawing off 23 million acre-feet of water each year. (An acre-foot represents the amount of water required to cover one acre with water one foot deep.) This is in large part a testament to the requirements of a livestock industry worth $10 billion a year.
And of course the gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, and electricity required to pump the water up several hundred feet from the shrinking aquifer are as finite as the water itself. Sometime in the next century, the high plains will be forced back to dryland farming, with such descendants of the present population as remain facing other environmental disasters–prominent among them the poisoning of the remaining groundwater by herbicides, fertilizer, and vast amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from the manure excreted day by day in the feedlots. At the end of the 1980s, Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University began arguing that an era of agricultural “pullback” lay ahead, and the future of the plains might include “buffalo commons” in which native animals such as the buffalo would roam over federally owned grasslands once more.
The pattern is the same the world round: Unsustainable grazing and ranching are laying waste to drylands, forests, and wild species. Brazil’s military dictators, who came to power in the early 1960s, hoped to convert their nation’s Amazonian rain forests, which cover more than 60 percent 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 in order to get tax write-offs and kindred subsidies from the junta. Big ranchers accounted for most of the destruction. Within a decade or so, degraded scrubland 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 or 3 million people who lived in the rainforest have been evicted with each encroachment of the burning season.
Such are the assaults on the environment and the poor. By 1990 about half of all American rangeland was severely degraded, with habitats along narrow streams the worst in memory. Australian pastures show the same pattern. In the drylands of South Africa, overgrazing has made over 7 million acres useless for cattle, and 35 million acres of savanna are rapidly becoming equally useless.
Over the past quarter-century many national governments–prodded by the World Bank–have plunged into schemes for intensive grain-based meat production. In Mexico the share of cropland growing feed and fodder for animals went from 5 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 1980. Sorghum, used for animal feed, is now Mexico’s second largest crop by area. 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 is now a net corn importer, with imports from rich countries such as Canada and the United States wiping out millions of subsistence farmers who have to migrate to the cities or to El Norte. Mexico feeds 30 percent of its grain to livestock while 22 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition.
Multiply this baleful pattern across the world. Grain-based livestock production inexorably leads to larger and larger units and economies of scale, in a kind of world beef gulag whose consequences are now causing such a panic.
A version of this article originally appeared in City Pages in 1996.