Beyond Beef:The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Industry
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In describing Beyond Beef as “the most disturbing indictment of the beef industry” since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the publisher in fact understates the importance of Jeremy Rifkin’s new book. Eighty-five years ago Upton Sinclair disclosed that the meat Americans were eating could be disease-ridden, and that its unhealthy condition was often shielded from inspection by widespread corruption. Sinclair also revealed the inhuman working conditions and appalling animal suffering pervasive in the meat industry. Rifkin too tells us of health risks, corruption, and the ruthless exploitation of animals. But he goes beyond Sinclair in showing the injustices produced by the beef industry on an international scale and its ruinous effect on the environment. That is why Beyond Beef should be compared not with The Jungle, but rather with Silent Spring, The Fate of the Earth, or the book that is its nearest predecessor, Diet for a Small Planet. Like those books, Beyond Beef draws our attention to a threat to what we most value.
If it seems odd that a book about cattle should be so important, consider the growth of the cattle industry alongside that of the world’s population. That the growth in world population is one of the greatest risks to the survival of all species on this planet is now a commonplace; but do we ever hear of the threat from the world’s cattle population, now 1.28 billion and with a combined weight exceeding that of the human population? Is it not, Rifkin asks, a little disingenuous of intellectuals and planners in the first world to dwell on the number of babies being born in less affluent nations, while ignoring the overpopulation of cattle, to which we ourselves contribute?
The inefficiency of feeding grain to cattle has been well known since Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet was first published in 1971. Rifkin reports on some more recent studies that confirm the central thesis of that pioneering work. Only 11 percent of the feed goes to produce the beef itself, with the remainder being burned off as energy, excreted, or absorbed into parts of the body that are not eaten. Cattle in feedlots produce less than 50 kilograms of protein from the consumption of over 790 kilograms of plant protein. So a very large proportion of plant protein would be available as food if it were not grown for feeding cattle. The huge appetite for beef in industrialized nations is a form of conspicuous consumption that drives us to demand more and more land and resources, thus forcing up the price of the dwindling supply of land and resources that remains available for others to use in order to obtain the bare necessities of life.
That, however, is only one of many reasons why Rifkin objects to the cattle industry. There may be little new in his discussion of the threat posed by the cattle industry to the tropical rain forests that are home to most of the …
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Necessary Suffering? August 13, 1992