Too Much Beef | From Sustainable Cycle to Disaster

cattle feedlot 001 Too Much Beef | From Sustainable Cycle to Disaster

Here’s a despicable fact. Roughly 30% of the earth’s ice-free areas are used in livestock production, belching nearly 20% of all greenhouse gases – more than all GHG emitted in transportation. According to Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of Geophysics at the University of Chicago, reducing American beef consumption by 20% would have the same impact as putting a Prius in every driveway. Here’s another statistic: it takes 20 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie from livestock.

Yikes! As an on-again, off-again vegetarian — mainly because of this problem — I knew that corporate America lurked behind the destruction of the rainforest for beef and cattle-feed operations, but I had no idea of the extent of the harm done.

What exactly is the problem? Cattle once depended on the sun for energy to make muscle and protein; the sun makes grass grow, cows eat the grass and produce protein, cows poop, thereby fertilizing the next generation of grass, birds come in and feed on the poop and spread the undigested seeds. And that’s basically how farms operated until the mid-20th century, using only 1 calorie of feed to produce 2 calories of edible food. How (and why?) did we turn a totally sustainable enterprise into one that will eventually destroy us?

cattle feedlot 002 Too Much Beef | From Sustainable Cycle to Disaster

cattle feedlot 003 Too Much Beef | From Sustainable Cycle to Disaster

There are two turning points in history that changed this solar powered industry into one dependent on fossil fuels. The first is the development of chemical fertilizers. By artificially producing and spreading Nitorgen, Phosphorus and Potassium, it became feasible to overproduce some crops – like corn and soybeans – and the government encouraged overproduction through wayward policies (that I’d love to tell you about if you send me an e-mail). The second was the “discovery” that cows could be fattened (beef is graded on the marbling of fat in the muscle – the more marbling, the higher grade and therefore more bling) much more quickly on corn than grass – especially if the cows are penned in a yard more tightly than J.Lo in a pair of Jordache. And there just happened to be a surplus of corn that continued to swell as more fertilizer was produced and more efficient methods of growing corn were bioneered (think GMO).

One problem remains, however: cow stomachs evolved to digest grass, not corn, so huge amounts of antibiotics and acid-reducing drugs are needed to augment the corn meal (another dinosaur dependent industry). Cows only spend a few weeks fattening before slaughter – any longer and the corn would kill them. If you’ve ever been to southern Kansas, America’s feedlot zone, you’d want to end it all quickly, too.

That’s the simple story of how the sun-grass-cow sustainable cycle turned into a petroleum-chemical fertilizer-corn-antibiotic-cow disaster.

Beef. It’s what’s for dinner, along with CO2, methane, polluted water, and environmental catastrophe.

More on this topic from the NY Times.

Looking for a full-blown, best-selling explanation? Try The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

cattle feedlot 004 Too Much Beef | From Sustainable Cycle to Disaster

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