A Big Beef

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, April 12, 1996

When I visited the WSHU studio last week, news director Tom Kuser was incredulous. He'd just discovered that mad cow disease was transmitted to cows because they were fed ground-up sheep parts. "Don't cows usually eat grass?" he asked.

Geri, who does such a fine job of recording and editing these broadcasts, said that she stopped eating beef six years ago simply because she felt better when she didn't eat it.

The threat of a spongy brain disease spreading from sheep, to cattle, to humans has caused a ban on all British beef exports and a decision to kill and incinerate 15, 000 British cows a week for the next five years, until all the older cows are killed.

Mad cow disease is just the latest reason to eat less beef. Twenty-five years ago, Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet taught us how inefficient cattle are at converting plant protein into animal protein. Cattle eat 21 pounds of protein to produce just one pound. In order to make a pound of meat, cattle eat almost three times as much grain as pigs do, and almost four times as much as chickens. It also takes the equivalent of one gallon of gasoline and twenty-five hundred gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef. Grain, gas and water are used so wastefully because they are heavily subsidized by the government.

For years we have known that it is better for our health if we eat more fruits, grains and vegetables and less meat.

In January of this year, a beef trade rift between the US and the EU (that's the European Union) brought another potential problem to light. The EU says its consumers are wary of the health hazards of eating beef from cows that have been treated with growth hormones. Since about 70 percent of US cattle are treated with these hormones, the EU has banned the import of our beef in addition to its global ban on the export of British beef.

If fast food hamburgers and supermarket meats were truthfully labeled as to the hormones, drugs and feeds used in their production, Americans who still eat beef might think twice about it.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against cows. They're wonderful animals. Cows are able to turn grass and other relatively indigestible plant materials into meat and milk. In proper balance, cows actually improve pastures by grazing.

What got British and US cattlemen into trouble was not their cattle, but their desire to hurry nature up, and to cheat by using unnatural feed or artificial hormones in order to improve their bottom lines. In short, human greed got the British and American cattle businesses into trouble.

The steaks and roasts that many people eat routinely come from cattle bred exclusively for meat, rather than for milk. Many of these cattle start out on subsidized, public-grazing land before they are moved to feedlots. There they are jammed together and stuffed with grain, as well as with hormones to make them grow faster and antibiotics to keep them from getting sick in such crowded, unnatural conditions.

As a result, ground water is polluted by the excess manure from the feedlots. Methane from the crowded cows worsens global climate change. Even more frightening, antibiotics are becoming less useful in fighting human infections. We don't know what the hormones do, but we do know that eating too much beef is bad for our health.

Too much beef is exactly what we raise in this country. And, 80 percent of US beef is processed by just four packing companies. Their concentrated power is effective at driving down the prices paid to independent farmers for their cattle.

The political and economic power of Big Beef is as dangerous to our democracy as its feedlots are to the environment and its product is to our health. The average American eats his or her weight in meat each year. Even a modest reduction can have many very positive effects. Use your power as a consumer: Don't buy beef.

A garden is a big help. With all those delicious peas and beans, yellow and red potatoes, fresh onions, garlic, broccoli, squash, tomatoes and herbs, who even thinks about meat. Almost any plant produces much more protein per acre than cows do. Spinach, for example, produces 26 times as much.

Enjoy growing and eating more vegetables.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.