Having a Cow

Beyond Beef blames cattle for the decline of civilization—not to mention famine, pestilence, destruction, and death.

Environmental activist Jeremy Rifkin environmental activist Jeremy Rifkin sees the cow as a doomsday beast. In Beyond Beef (Dutton, $21), Rifkin unleashes a 353-page attack upon every element of the beef industry, from the cowboy to the ecologically naive teenager who drops in at McDonald’s for a quick hamburger. He finds them all part of a dark, centuries-old capitalist conspiracy that spells ruin for the planet.

Cattle raising, Rifkin postulates, has historically removed land from farming, dispossessing the poor of the world in favor of the rich. Beef encourages aggression. In ancient societies that prefigure our own, the primary purpose of the warrior class was to do battle and expropriate cattle. Beef is also a weapon of social control. Viewed as the property of men, it promotes the subservience of women and encourages racism and class discrimination.

These are only beef’s minor sins. Rifkin finds the industry’s overgrazing and clearing of land responsible for worldwide desertification (the goat used to get the blame); destroying species of mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects; and contributing to global warming and depletion of the ozone layer. He blames the cow for expending and polluting the earth’s waters, creating a “wasteland of deadly gases” with its flatulence, and in general imperiling the future of the world so the well-to-do can gorge themselves on fat.

Rifkin’s diatribe is pretty hard to swallow, especially for someone such as your reviewer, who has spent forty years reporting on the cattle industry. Even so, Rifkin makes some valid points. An example is the destruction of South American rain forests for farming and cattle pasture (but note that the United States buys only cooked and packaged Brazilian beef, and relatively little of it, so don’t blame the American hamburger eater). Another reasonable point is that U.S. Department of Agriculture beef grades have long overemphasized fat content (though consumer advocates initially fought the department’s proposed lower-fat grading system because it would “cheat” customers). Rifkin’s opposition to the USDA’s experimental Streamlined Inspection System is shared by some in the cattle industry, who fear it will lead to scandal and shake consumer confidence in quality and safety standards for meat.

The book is not without merit, but the author’s case would have been better had he not simplistically saddled most of the world’s ills on the back of the poor cow. Lest the reader accuse this unrepentant, beef-loving reviewer of taking Rifkin out of context, consider these chapter titles: “Corpulent Cows and Opulent Englishmen,” “Marbled Specks of Death,” “Cows Devour People,” “Hoofed Locusts,” “Meat and Gender Hierarchies,” “The Hamburger and the Highway Culture,” and “Cattle and Cold Evil.” Rifkin traces just about everything wrong with the world back to the cow except for sunspots and earthquakes.

Okay, so this description sounds exaggerated, but only because Rifkin’s polemic against beef and all who raise, feed, slaughter, sell, or eat it is classic overkill. In his book, truths are stretched, twisted, and hammered to fit an evangelistic vegetarian’s scenario of global catastrophe. Rifkin strains at gnats and swallows camels, or asks the reader to.

Frequently he confuses cause and effect. For example, in tracing the history of this nation’s western expansion, Rifkin concludes that the subjugation of the Indian and the extermination of the buffalo resulted from a plot between government, cattle interests, and English noblemen. In fact, removal of Native Americans was part of the now-discredited doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The plow had a far greater role in promulgating that doctrine than the cow. The discovery of a new way to process buffalo hides suddenly created a market for them just at a time when the nation slid into a money panic and thousands of out-of-work men were looking for a way to survive. That this market for hides conveniently suited Manifest Destiny was an accident of history. That cattle subsequently filled the vacuum created by the removal of the buffalo was an effect, not a cause. Where land was arable, the plow soon followed the cow and displaced her too. Too often, the plow followed even where the land was not arable.

Throughout the book, Rifkin calls heavily upon history but is selective in his use of it. He sees more conspiracies than Oliver Stone. He infers that the primary reason for building railroads across the West was to transport beef to the East Coast for shipment to a rich and self-indulgent England. He charges that western grasslands have been and are being ruined by cattle when in fact most are in better condition today than two or three generations ago, thanks to enlightened range management.

To Rifkin, any animal is better than the cow. He declares that cows’ emission of methane is a significant contributor to global warming. He calls for turning the plains into a giant buffalo preserve without considering that buffalo were once about as numerous as cattle and that they have gas too. He yearns for a return of free-roaming wild horses and burros to western ranges without noting that they are not native there but were introduced by white invaders. And he doesn’t seem to know that in terms of damage to grasslands, the equine, pound for pound, is more destructive than the bovine. Any rancher could have told him that, but he wouldn’t have believed an evil old rancher.

Rifkin cites every familiar claim about the negative health aspects of beef (fat, cholesterol) but avoids any mention of its nutritional benefits (high-quality protein, iron). He is scandalized that the average American “gorges” on 65 pounds of beef a year—less than three ounces per day. That is gorging? “The affluent populations of the northern hemisphere are dying by the millions from grain-fed beef and other grain-fed red meat,” he declares.

The truth is that, in spite of beef, actuarial tables show Americans’ life expectancy increasing year by year. This reviewer was recently contacted by an insurance company from which he had bought a policy nearly thirty years ago. Because he was expected to live so much longer,

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