Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jan 30 09:10:28 MST 2016

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 
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.

Take California. In the late 18th century, when the first cattle herds 
arrived in what the Spanish colonists called Alta California, there were 
meadows with perennial bunchgrasses, 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.

By the 1860s, in the wake of the Gold Rush, some 3 million cattle were 
grazing California's open ranges, and the degradation was swift. In less 
than a century, California's pastoral utopia had been destroyed by 
beasts and invasive weeds; the ranchers moved east of the Sierra Nevada 
into the Great Basin or north.

These days, travelers heading north through California's Central Valley 
on Interstate 5 gaze upon mile after mile of environmental wreckage: 
arid land, except where irrigated by water brought in from the north, 
absurdly dedicated to producing cotton and rice. Some 200 miles north of 
Los Angeles, fierce stench and clouds of dust herald the immense Harris 
Beef feedlot. On the east side of the interstate several thousand steers 
are penned, occasionally doused by water sprays. After a few moments of 
this Dantesque spectacle, the barren landscape resumes, with one of 
California's state prisons at Coalinga -- unlike the beef feedlot, 
secluded from view -- lying just over the horizon to the west.

California is now America's largest dairy state, and livestock 
agriculture uses almost a third of all of its irrigation water. It takes 
360 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef (irrigation for grain, 
trough-water for stock), which is why, farther east in the feedlot 
states of Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, along with the Texas Panhandle, 
the Ogalala aquifer has been so severely depleted. (The specific energy 
economics involved here are analyzed in an excellent survey on animal 
farming and the environment by Alan Durning and Holly Brough, published 
by the Worldwatch Institute.)

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. Some time in the next century, as the 
environmental historian Donald Worster of the University of Kansas has 
predicted, the high plains will be forced back to dry-land farming, with 
such descendants of the present population as remain facing other 
environmental disasters: the poisoning of the remaining groundwater by 
herbicides, fertilizer and vast amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus 
excreted day by day in the feedlots, in our own era's polluted reprise 
of the 1930s' Dust Bowl crisis. Unsustainable grazing and ranching 
necessary for the production of meat require the sacrifice of drylands, 
forests and wild species. The world's more humid zones have also been 
the target of beef transformation. In the early 1960s, Brazil's military 
dictators hoped to convert vast portions of the Amazonian rain forests, 
which cover more than 60 percent of the country, to cattle pasture and 
thus enhance Brazil's status as a major beef exporter. As large 
companies acquired immense spreads, they cut down the trees and 
triggered land wars and speculative frenzies driven by tax write-offs 
and kindred state subsidies. Big ranchers, rather than the 
peasant-settler-pyromaniacs of song and story, accounted for most of the 
destruction. Within a decade or so, degraded scrub land had yielded 
money to the corporations but few cattle, and none that could be sold on 
the world market, because of endemic hoof-and-mouth disease. Meanwhile, 
many of the 2 or 3 million people who lived in the rain forest have been 
evicted with each encroachment of the burning season.


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