Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Beef: It's What's For Dinner (Unfortunately)

I was inspired by a brief but interesting article in Time this week (thanks, btw, to the postal worker who mistakenly delivered a neighbor's Time to us) to look more deeply into the potential for major benefits in switching from beef raised on silage corn to pasture grass. This is serious business, since there are more greenhouse gases coming from livestock production than human transportation. How 'bout that? Let me insert a plug here that I'm not opposed to eating beef, even though I actually eat about 10% of what I used to growing up. Turns out turkey is the shizz.

OK, I get that it seems like a small change, but think about what happens when we eat beef that's raised on a major beef production plant, in, say Texas, the top beef producer in the country. Well, that cow on a giant plant in Texas needs to eat--a lot. But we're not growing the corn in Texas, we're growing it in Nebraska.

So we have to first grow corn on our happy little corn farm (well, 3,500 acres--more on this later), which creates its own production costs, dumps a shitload of chemicals all over the land, and uses a ton of fuel. Then we have to process all this corn into a mix that can be easily be digested and turned into beef fat ASAP. Then we have to truck all this corn mix 800 miles to the plant where we're finishing up cows. At this point, the cows are munching on their grub--I'd imagine it tastes like Fritos--but because they're way too close together, you have to give them a shit ton of cow drugs to keep them from getting sick. The other problem, well, it's the poop.

Turns out manure (and everything else coming out a cow's butt) is chock full of methane, the same stuff that comes out of your car. This is sort of bad. Back in the day, it was no sweat because it all just went on the grass, fertilized new grass, and the cows or whatever ate that later on. Circle of life, baby, circle of life. But when you have 8,000 cows all pooping around each other, it's more crap than a Tea Party rally (sorry, I couldn't resist). So beside the point of "hey wait, do I want to eat this cow that's been hanging around poop all day? Is there a hyphen in E. Coli" (No, and No), you have to haul this mountain of poop somewhere, which takes more fuel. Then there's the whole problem of having to truck all this meat to it's final destination, which is likely hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away, since I want my Big Mac in Maryland.

On the other hand, if you have cattle and let them just graze on a big field somewhere, you're pretty much just skipping a ton of these steps. The cow eats grass, he walks around, poops all over the field, the poop makes healthy grass, and in the end, things take a turn for the worse for him. I'm not talking anything crazy like making everyone raise their own cow and eat him. Sounds pretty good, right?

Two Problems (But ones we can fix!):

1) It's more expensive to do it the grass-fed way.
2) The people in the grain-fed chain of production don't want anything to change. Ever.

The solutions really overlap on this whole mess, which helps simplify somewhat, but also means you need to really bring the wood if you're going to fix this clusterfuck.

Right now, it's probably going to cost you about twice as much to go get grass-fed beef at the store (We'll call it $6 per pound for grass to $3 per pound for corn), but those costs aren't actually reflective of, you know, reality. Here's the issue: it doesn't really cost $3 to get that pound of beef. It's more than that. But all along the chain, the Federal Government is paying the producers straight cash money to keep doing what they're doing. Here's how this works, in essence: The government guarantees a certain price for corn, say $10 per bushel. In our hypo, the price of corn on the open market works out to be about $7 per bushel, because the producers grew way more corn than ever was needed, and because they know they get paid even if the price drops low due to an over-saturated market. The government pays the extra $3 per bushel to the producer, probably a big corporation like Arthur Daniels Midland (ADM). Repeat this for each of ADM's 50 million bushels of corn every year. Repeat this process for the company responsible for the beef as well. Literally, the Federal government spends Billions every year doing this crap. And you're paying for it.

So the first thing is to really blow up this process and start over. A 2007 study noted that agribusiness spent over $135 million in 2006 on lobbying and campaign donations, about 2/3 to Republicans. Every time it comes up, we all see ads showing a small farmer wistfully looking at his scraggly crop and aging house, and that's what they want. The problem is that that guy's probably an actor, and 75% of the money spent goes to 10% of the recipients. The bottom 80% get about $700 on average, so forget about about the happy little storyline.

We all need to be waaaaay more proactive about this funding issue, because we're getting completely screwed on this, and as it turns out, we as the public are the only ones. ADM, Cargill, and Tyson are pretty much wiping their ass with Franklins that we're throwing at them, and we're responding to all of this by sending more bills. We need to get on this ASAP, and not let it slide when people like Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) get a ton of money from these guys and then use their seats on the Senate Agriculture Committee to keep this sham moving. This is why ADM has a 7-foot bronze statue of Ronald Reagan outside their corporate headquarters, not because he was a flashy dresser.

Ultimately, we can do a hell of a lot of good by just eating less beef, and focusing on the grass-fed stuff when we partake. If you ever see an ad claiming that beef farmer Jones is going under because we're not eating beef ,think to yourself, "Wait, Farmer Jones can afford to be on a national TV ad, but not to eat on a regular basis? Hmmmmm." Because it's as fake as the day is long. Also, by choosing locally raised meat that doesn't involve the mega-industrial elements, we'll push the market towards more desirable stuff, who actually are small farmers, increasing the demand and then subsequently the supply, and the price goes...? Down, that's right!

Guess what else? We can save loads of fuel by eating locally, and eat way less of the bacteria and drugs that they have to put into the system to make it sustainable. And I'm not even getting into the issues of how they treat the animals. Jesus, it's a rough, rough, business (and another blog entry, but not for today). Moreover, Lord knows it's clear that red meat is a nutritional disaster, regardless of what McDonalds and Kroger say. Try that turkey, because like I said, it's the shizz.

Hope this all makes some sense, and maybe down the road we can be a little better about what we're eating. Like I said before, I'm not anti-meat or anti-beef. I love meat, and I love beef. But just handing over money to these giant corporations so they can tell us to look the other way while they screw us seems a little unnecessary, no?

1 comment:

  1. Quite an impressive rant from an omnivore. I heard a piece on NPR the other day about how the federal government also helps farmers out by buying up extra "goodies" (for example, pork products during the H1N1 panic) and then gets rid of it through the SCHOOL LUNCH PROGRAM! Awesome! I wonder why we are raising a generation of obese children with high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes?