By Sam Hermanstorfer
Cow history begins with the aurochs, an ungulate native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. The aurochs is now extinct, partially due to competition of resources with the domesticated cattle adapted from, ironically, the aurochs originally. Investment into the protection of the aurochs has varied over time. Eventually, it was too late for people to reverse the decisions they made for the conservation of the species. The relationship between cattle and humans creates a rift in nature due to minimization of costs and the prioritization of humans rather than life holistically. Repercussions of the beef cattle industry show the presence of human impact on the world today. The beef cattle industry represents the Anthropocene through controversial practices in capitalism and multispecies ethics, illustrated in the production of methane gas, deforestation, and human-wildlife conflict.
Relating to capitalism, the classic 1984 Wendy’s advertisement creates a slogan characterizing the demand for beef in commercial business: “Where’s the beef?” The successful phrase has continued to pay dividends for the fast food franchise. Even today, the demand for meat is speeding up. The United States consumed 26.5 kilograms of beef per capita between 2010 and 2012. Additionally, China and India are expecting 80% increase in the meat sector. Capitalistic stress and industry specialization to increase profits create large demands for meat. To commercial farmers, cows are dollar signs. Beef cattle are an example of cheapness within capitalism. They reflect cheap nature– the abuse of the natural world as a resource for production and storage. Cheap nature is the failure to recognize the dependency humans have on wild environments, even though humans represent life on earth like every other species.
Relating to cheap nature, the morals of multispecies ethics are heavily intertwined with the minimizing costs incorporated with the capitalist economic system. Multispecies ethics is a concept originally developed by Donna Haraway, who states: “All critters share a common “flesh,” laterally, semiotically, and genealogically”. It is the interdisciplinary work of humans and nonhumans towards mutualistic relationships with the hope of a more just and multi-perspective life for all. Living things like cows are often treated as a commodity to further benefit humans in control of their lives. Both cheap nature and multispecies ethics are applicable to problems present in the beef cattle industry.
Furthermore, the rising level of methane in the earth’s atmosphere is an indicator of human impact on the environment, much of which can be attributed to livestock like beef cattle. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), methane is the second highest greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere only after carbon dioxide (CO2). When factoring both the digestive processes of livestock and manure mismanagement emissions, agriculture is the largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions in the United States at 36%. While cattle are dwarfed in comparison to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, the EPA states, “pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane] is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.” As a result, a smaller amount of methane is more harmful to the environment than a similar amount of CO2. The mass production of beef cattle taking place globally can greatly attribute to the presence of methane in Earth’s air. In 2018, 94.4 million cattle were documented in the United States alone. Comparatively, this is about one cow per four Americans. If the University of Wisconsin-Madison admitted cows at a similar proportion, there would be 10,000 bovines added to the campus. Additionally, in 2017, there were 1.49 billion cattle around the world. The massive reproduction of cows for human use reflect the use of nature as a resource for human benefit. Also, it demonstrates the lack of a mutualistic relationship between cattle and humans. naturally, cows likely would not be as abundant in the world without human manipulation of artificial insemination.
Unlike greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation has an obvious, practical impact. The beef cow industry, especially in the Global South, creates space for the immense number of cattle demanded by the beef industry through deforestation. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Central American rainforest area has experienced reduction by 40% over the last 40 years. In 2010, cattle populations grazed on more than 24 million hectares of land previously forested in the year 2000. For the maximum beef production be reached, businesses need space to raise the cattle. Combined with an increasing prevalence of animal rights activism, expanding the range in which the cattle roam increases profits and minimize costs. When discussing the pasture-raised cattle, one Connecticut based judge stated, “there is no business like it in the world… it costs nothing to feed the cattle. They grow without eating your money. They literally raise themselves”. Pasture-raised cattle originating from deforestation is rooted in capitalist cost-minimization practices.
Additionally, businesses or farms engage in utilizing cheap nature to maximize profits when buying large tracts of land for grazing. The more space devoted to grazing cows, the more cows one can own, and the higher the profit collected. This is true even if creating more space means further altering land through deforestation. One critical example of cheap nature can be found in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, the Amazon Rainforest. Over two-thirds of deforested land in the south and central American rainforests are used for cattle ranching rather than for the original populations endemic to the region. The implications of Brazilian Amazon deforestation are staggering- reduction of rainfall in frequency and quantity, increases in average temperature, and longer dry seasons are likely to occur because of deforestation in this region.
As spaces are deforested, wildlife conflict more with agricultural production. The repurposing of this land has led to an increase in human and wildlife conflict, often resulting in a culling of animals if interference with livestock occurs. Much of the wildlife conflicts with livestock can happen on public land. In the United States, the Bureau of Land Management sells nearly 18,000 permits to ranchers who graze their livestock, possible through the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, allowing the creation of grazing districts. Alternatively, small-livestock farmers in the Karoo region of South Africa have reported serious predation problems with smaller-sized predators. It is perceived by these South African farmers that predator numbers are increasing with declining government support for predator management. Deterrence of wildlife from their native areas to protect livestock reflects a cheap nature approach. It is an attempt to preserve profits while harming wild populations acting out of instinct.
It is difficult to foresee the world in its current state without the presence of humans. The beef cattle industry unsustainably exploits nature and abuses the relationships between humans and animals. Something– policy, practices, or thinking– must change in the beef cattle industry to alter the current course of the Anthropocene. Recently, Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s Green New Deal is a recent program proposed in the United States focusing on clean energy, conservation, and agriculture reform. Could this be a step in the right direction to negating human impact? Only time will tell. Whatever humans think about agricultural reform, the future of nature is anthropocentric- either nature will be lost or humans must change their ways.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Statistics for Live Animals, 2017. United Nations, 2018. http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA
Gibbs Land Use and Environment Lab (GLUE) and the National Wildlife Foundation. “The Brazilian Amazon and Cattle Ranching: A Brief Introduction.” A Path Towards Zero Deforestation Cattle, 2015. http://www.zerodeforestationcattle.org/
Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin” Environmental Humanities, 6, 2015, pp. 159-165. http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol6/6.7.pdf
Heinrich Böll Foundation. “Meat Atlas- Facts and Figures About the Animals We Eat” Heinrich Böll Stiftung, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, 2011.
Hurlburt, Virgil. “The Taylor Grazing Act.” The Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics, vol. 11, no. 2, 1935, pp. 203–206. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3158670.
Kurtzleben, Danielle. “Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Releases Green New Deal Outline”.National Public Radio. National Public Radio, Inc. 7 February 2019. https://www.npr.org/2019/02/07/691997301/rep-alexandria-ocasio-cortez-releases-green-new-deal-outline
Moore, Jason, and Raj Patel, “Introduction”. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, University of California Press, 17 October, 2017.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “Industry Statistics” National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, 2019.
Statham, Jonathan. “Breeding in Cattle Reproduction.” Merck Manual. Veterinary Manual. Merck Sharp and Dohme Corp., 2019. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/management-of-reproduction-cattle/breeding-in-cattle-reproduction
Tikhonov, A. 2008. Bos primigenius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2008: e.T136721A4332142. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2008.RLTS.T136721A4332142.en. Downloaded on 09 May 2019.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Overview of Greenhouse Gases.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2019.
Velten, Hannah. Cow, London, Reaktion Books Ltd., 2007. pp. 127-155.
Wendy’s Fast Food, The Wendy’s Company. “Where’s the Beef?” Advertisement (1984). Accessed 7 May 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug75diEyiA0