Mar 7, 2014
Why You Should Eat Yak Instead of Beef
Posted on Sep 27, 2011
I first comprehended the awfulness of the ranching industry when the cows of Moonlight Meadows, high in the La Sal Mountains of Utah, surrounded me and began shitting. They had been trucked in from the canyons of the lowland desert countryside, near the town of Moab, to graze summer long on the free grass in the mountains—public grass, as this was land protected in trust for the American people by the federal government, under the auspices of the U.S. Forest Service. But none of it was much protected; the feces were the visceral evidence of this.
Along the trail the cows had laid big diarrheal pies, ice slippery, landmine-like, which splashed onto socks, legs and shorts. Where the trail steepened, the shit was treacherous. Soon I was surfing in it and finally was thrown like a clown on a banana peel. I lay there feeling stupid and looked around at the hundreds of cattle in the field nearby, one of many herds strewn in the mountains. A mother turned her ass to me and fired a big green load of diarrhea. Another cow pissed in an arc like a fire hose.
The cows evacuated thus onto the land and into the air, sometimes onto one another’s backs and into eyes, the shit where it had dried swirling in dust devils when the wind kicked up and where it was sloppy and wet running in streams, in puddles, in steaming black pools. The stench was ammoniacal, sulfurous, and as I lay there in my dung-splash wallow, it was, quite suddenly, an unbearable experience: not just the smell of bowels evacuating, of creatures destined for the slaughterhouse as death on the hoof, but the cultural and political travesty it represented, the ecocidal meaning of it.
Cows are terribly destructive creatures, especially in arid climates. Livestock are considered by a quorum of scientists as the No. 1 cause of species extinction, topsoil loss, deforestation and desertification in the American West. They muck or stomp or gorge out of existence streams, whole watersheds, rare grasses and shrubs, entire ecosystems in micro. Their big heavy hooves trample the soil, eroding it often beyond repair. Just as the cow is an invasive species, an exotic in the West—an import of Spanish missionaries in the 16th century—it brings invasive weeds that triumph in its midst: the water-greedy tamarisk, for example, along with the greedier Russian olive and the useless Russian thistle, better known as tumbleweed. A 1998 study from the Journal of Arid Environments found that a hundred years of livestock grazing on public lands near the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico was more damaging in terms of long-term development and recovery of flora than multiple nuclear bomb blasts.
More than 300 million acres of public lands in 11 Western states—lands owned by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and, collectively, by all Americans—are given over to the resource destruction of the cattle industry. That’s 40 percent of the landmass of the West, 12 percent of the landmass of the lower 48 states. The ranching industry controls this domain with massive subsidies from state and federal government. Even private insurance lenders such as Metropolitan Life, Mutual Life and Prudential, which in recent years have issued more than $1 billion in questionable loans to ranchers who used federally issued grazing permits as collateral, are now silent players in the subsidized ruination of Western public lands.
Democratic and Republican Congresses alike have defended these subsidies as the cowboy’s divine right, though in fact federal grazing provides just $1 out of every $2,500 of taxable income in the West, and just 1 out of every 1,400 jobs. Ranching on public lands in the West contributes minimally—less than 3 percent—to national beef production, as most American beef is husbanded in the temperate East. Meanwhile, the industry in the last 20 years has consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, those rich operators who can survive the exigencies of the globalization of the beef trade and the rampant land value speculation that has overtaken much of the scenic West. Today, 10 percent of the cattle operators in Montana, to take just one example, own 50 percent of the cattle in the state. These new cattle oligarchs, lobbying government to maintain their power, are the modern incarnations of the legendary barons who helped win the West in the 19th century via coercion of whole cities, corruption of officialdom, collusion with railroads and Eastern banks, rampant violence, the ecocide of buffalo and the genocide of Native Americans. The power of political cowboyism today extends even to cowing the big green conservation groups—the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council—that have refused to tackle head-on the environmental damage from ranching.
New and Improved Comments