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America has reached peak cow: Why it's time to reconsider the human-bovine partnership

Denis and Gail Boyer Hayes on the health and environmental impacts of America's 93 million cows


Lindsay Abrams
March 7, 2015 9:00PM (UTC)

93 million: The number of cows currently living in America, competing with us for food and water resources.

5, 11 and 28: The factor by which conventional, grain-fed beef emits more greenhouse gases, and uses up more water and land, respectively, as compared to other meat sources.

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71.2: Pounds of red meat consumed by the average American in 2012.

These are the kinds of the numbers that can cause an environmentalist to lose sleep at night. For prominent environmentalists Denis and Gail Boyer Hayes, it was the impetus to write a book. "Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America's Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment" is, as the title suggests, a comprehensive look at how the once-beneficial human-bovine partnership has tipped in favor of the cows, complete with suggestions about how we might begin to even out the scales -- for all of our sakes.

The solution, obviously enough, is going to require our eating less red meat. How radical that idea strikes you as being may depend on how much you value your steak and burgers -- although the Hayes are careful to explain that they don't think it's helpful to give up the bloody protein source altogether. Instead, what they're calling for is the ideal underpinning most approaches to reforming our food system: a more mindful approach to what we're putting on our plates.

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Salon spoke with the Hayes about their case for reconsidering the cow -- and it's a strong one. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Denis, a while back you tweeted, “‘Cowed’ is not anti-cow, it’s pro-cow but with limits.” What's the distinction, to you?

DH: There is, of course, a community that for a variety of different reasons -- some of them moral, some of them health-oriented, some of them environmentally oriented -- will eat no beef at all and no dairy products at all. That’s perfectly fine, but it’s a fairly small fraction of the American population; I think the last figures that we saw were that 3 percent of Americans were true vegetarians. That’s not enough to use market signals to change things.

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It’s just about impossible for us to change this stuff in the current political situation, where corporations are persons and money is speech. But there’s no way that they control what we put on our forks. So if we can get those who do eat beef to stop eating too much beef that is too fat, and instead have smaller amounts of leaner beef that is pastured on through to the end -- grass-finished -- then we begin to change the way the industry operates just by requiring it. We would throw in, of course, also that the beef is treated humanely and that it’s mostly local and that we get a wide variety of different breeds of cow and different kinds of grasses and forbs and what have you.

It all comes together with our desire to keep having cows. We bred cows to be dependent upon us. Aurochs, which they all descended from, were pretty fierce things that carved out important roles for themselves in the ecosystems. Until the apex predator, us, came along, aurochs had a very firm place. You just can’t take Elsie out to the farm gates, slap her on the flank and say, “OK, babe, you’re on your own.” If there’s going to be a future for cows it has to be doing something that people are prepared to support. They make terrible lap cows and they’re not very good attack cows; they can’t do the things that dogs do for us. It’s going to be some sort of food stuff and leather goods.

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GH: We’re not anti-cow at all, because cows played a vastly greater role in our lives than most Americans realize. There wouldn’t even be a United States if it weren’t for the human-cow partnership. But we’ve now reached the point where we have to make some serious adjustments to our partnership agreement with cows and we need to make changes that will protect and benefit both cows and people, because the cows are just putting too much of a demand on our natural resources. But we always want to have cows around and we have no objections to people eating beef or enjoying dairy products.

What you’re calling for would still probably strike some people as extreme. You want to see the end of feed lots, which, you write, would mean "the end of cheap grocery store beef." So it would definitely mean a pretty significant change in what we’re eating, right?

GH: Compared to most of the world it’s certainly not that significant. Americans eat far more beef than people of any other country except Argentina and little Luxembourg. Two-thirds of us are obese or overweight, and the majority of the medical community says it would be better to not consume so much red meat.

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DH: And to consume a higher quality of red meat that is leaner. If you look at the way the USDA certifies beef, the highest rankings are directly correlated with how much fat content there is, with choice beef being the beef that is, as they say, most heavily marbled, which basically means the most fat.

I'm guessing you're in favor of the new dietary guideline recommendations that call for Americans to eat less red meat. Do they seem to you like a good first step, that could maybe inspire people to start eating this way?

GH: Yeah, we’d agree for all kinds of reasons. There have been two very interesting studies in the last year or two. One was a Harvard study that was over 28 years long and involved over 100,000 men and women. They found that those who ate one serving of unprocessed red meat a day increased their chance of dying over the course of the study by 13 percent. They can only speculate as to what it is in red meat that causes this, but there’s something in it that’s not good. (And of course there’s a lot of stuff in it that’s also very good: good protein and so forth.) Another study in 2014, a two decade-long study of over 6,000 adults, found that people who got over 20 percent of their calories every day from animal protein -- that goes beyond beef -- were four times as likely to die of cancer than if they got less than 10 percent of their calories from animal protein. I think that’s pretty convincing.

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Definitely an argument for moderation.

GH: A funny thing has happened in the United States now: It’s the wealthier, better educated people who are eating less beef, whereas when we were growing up it was a real sign that you’d made it to have beef on the table every day.

What do you think it means that that has shifted? Is it a growing awareness of these health effects?

DH: That’s pretty much the way that most new things permeate through society. It goes initially to the people who are influencers and they are often the college-educated people who are slightly better to do, buy the first computers, buy the first iPhones, buy the first electric cars, buy the first what have you. Then the stuff permeates down into society. I suspect that may well prove to be true with regard to beef eating and organic dairy products as well. The beef consumption is going down and the organic percentage of dairy products is going up. This book is in some sense trying to ride that wave and help shape it and accelerate it, but there’s already a wave out there that’s growing.

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One of the things that was striking to me about the book was your discussion about how we don’t really see cows, or encounter them anymore. What does it mean that we’re so isolated from the source of our food, and do you have any ideas about how we can change that?

DH: I think one of the aspects of cattle operations and dairy operations becoming so huge and concentrated, and corn growing as well falling into fewer and fewer hands, is that instead of farmers and ranchers making decisions about lands that they’ve been on for two or three generations and know and understand well, those decisions are now being made in corporate boardrooms that are often hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Similarly at the other end, the consumers. When I was growing up, a couple of summers I did some milking by a very small dairy and went out in the fields and made hay and I had some sense of what was going on. If the cows had been mistreated I certainly would have known about it and been appalled. But you put them into a 120,000-cow feed lot someplace a huge distance from the nearest human community so that the smell isn’t influencing people and so that people aren’t appalled when they see the so-called lagoons where the waste is dumped; then that’s out of sight, out of mind. Beef and dairy products come on the supermarket shelves and you don’t much think about it. It’s sort of like electricity: Electricity comes from the light switch in the wall, you don’t think about what it’s doing to global warming or nuclear waste.

GH: In fact that’s one reason we got into the book. Unlike Denis, I don’t think I’d ever been within 10 feet of a live cow before we went on this road trip to the British Isles and I got up close to some cows. My gosh, there were so many cows all over and they were huge! But everywhere we went we saw diverse little herds of cows and I wondered, where did they go in the United States? When I grew up, although I didn’t get close to them, I’d see them as we zipped along the road -- they’d be in the distance and so forth. That all vanished. So I started trying to find out what happened to the cows, and we found out, of course, that they went to factory farms, which Denis was fully aware of but I had a lot of learning to do at first.

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Then we started looking more into it and figured out that, wow, cows really explain a lot about food, who we are as Americans. They were so important to our history and, oddly enough, no one had, I don’t think, written a book about the overall impact of cows on America. So we got quite fascinated. But I think when people do start to experience cows, if we can get people to go to the farms and visit their farmers and meet the cows -- which a lot of farmers are really happy to do -- it will help because if you can see and touch and smell something and look into a cow’s big, brown eyes, you’re going to care more about how it’s treated.

I’m assuming you spoke with a lot of ranchers for the book, people who know a lot about cows and are thinking about this a lot. What are some of the concerns that are most on their minds?

DH: The experience that we had was that they’re most concerned with being able to develop a market for beef that is superior to that which is most commonly sold, but that costs a bit more money to raise, and so they have to charge a somewhat higher price for it.

GH: One immediate problem with beef would be that they complained that it was very, very hard to get their cows slaughtered, because if you have a grass-finished or organic product, it’s a specialty product. You can’t take it to one of the four big packing houses. They don’t want to stop their assembly lines and wash everything and give your cow special treatment -- it’s just too expensive. In the meantime, slaughtering facilities have been consolidating and there aren’t local places for people to go, they’re shut down. So the meat farmers are very concerned about this and they’re trying to get portable butchers equipped with an FDA inspector to roll around to different ranches and farms to do the slaughtering.

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DH: Where they have that service now, the rolling process facility typically has to go every morning to some government agency to get itself recertified before it goes to the next ranch. There’ll be one of these agencies that’s representing maybe a 300-mile radius, so the thing is on the road for several hours to get to the ranch, has very little time there and has to go back and get home and then go down and be recertified. It’s crazy.

I will say on the upside from these farmers, in terms of not only what are their fears, but what are their hopes, there seemed to be a widespread hope that beef could follow a path that’s not unlike that which has been followed by, say, wine or coffee. When we were growing up, you had choices in coffee: it was Folgers or Maxwell House. But now you go down and you can choose East African coffee, West African coffee, Indonesian coffee, Hawaiian coffee and different kinds of beans from each of those places grown in different soils, with different climates, and it’s remarkably different. Of course that’s vastly more so with wine, where true wine fans will put socks around bottles and see if they can tell which vineyard and which varietal and even which year. With beef, similarly if you have different breeds of cattle eating different grasses and forbs that grow in different places you can get a specialized taste. Rather than having corn-finished angus as being the highest and best and everybody’s aspiring toward that, you have different folks who will carve out different niches and prefer different kinds of meat.

GH: We also found that the vast amount of government support, of subsidies, goes to corn and other commodity crops and also programs that help the mass producers of beef and dairy. There’s very little help for the smaller farms, and that would be nice to have.

It seems like it would be necessary to bring about that sort of change.

DH: Yes, and once again this will change only when the distribution of power changes. One of the things we came across that was a surprise to both of us is that there’s supposed to be an environmental impact statement for every major federal activity, about the only one that we’re aware of that has never had an environmental impact statement is the farm bill. It’s just unacceptable. That ties in a little bit to this recent stuff that we began talking about with you about the recent set of dietary recommendations. It's the first time that we paid attention not just to the dietary consequences of cows but to the environmental impact of the way they’re raised. That’s the one that really has the big industry seeing red, because then you start talking about dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, things like that.

Cows didn’t evolve to deal well with this corn diet we feed them in order to make them obese. It has horrible digestive consequences and that requires massive loads of antibiotics and subsequent antibiotic resistance and on and on. It’s not a smart way to proceed.

GH: I’m sure you probably know these horror stories, but the high-grain diet causes a very acid condition in the cow’s rumen and it can eat through the walls of the rumen and make holes in the liver and so forth. The livers are just thrown away; one guy said, “Well, nobody eats liver much in the United States, anyway.” It’s just wrong and I think most people know it’s wrong, how we’re treating our cows today. So we go on and we give them a dozen other good reasons why they should make some dietary changes. We tried to come up with something that people could live with, that we could live with. We’re not saints and we wanted an idea that really wouldn’t cost people very much because beef is one of the most expensive things you can buy. By cutting back on that you can afford to get a little more better-quality beef, and that's something that really is easy to do. I think that by looking for organic dairy and cutting back on our beef consumption, we can affect a myriad of environmental problems and also social problems, like the plight of the small farmer, in a very positive way. That’s what we we’re hoping, that the book will have at least a little impact in that direction.


Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Climate Change Cows Food Meat Industry Public Health

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