Riding Herd on the 'Cattle Culture'

PETER A. JAY

July 12, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- Tom Lehrer, the lyric poet of an earlier age, wrote one of his most moving songs about a visit to a Mexican plaza de toros. One verse observes that "there is surely nothing more beautiful in this world than the sight of a lone man, facing single-handedly a half-ton of angry pot roast."

That was a less sensitive time, remember, when the subject of meat wasn't as politically volatile. Nowadays you wouldn't hear such a song. But I found it running through my head recently when the big Angus bull I had borrowed from Ham Amoss earlier this spring departed for the Lancaster stockyards.

This bull wasn't angry, having spent the last two months with some 40 welcoming cows, but he probably weighed a full ton, and his disposition wasn't what you'd call naturally sunny. On the day he arrived I tried to move him with a horse, and the encounter left him with his pride intact and the horse with a neurosis. On the other hand, he had tended to the cows attentively, so it was with mixed feelings that I watched him climb on the trailer.

Beef prices usually rise around the Fourth of July, when Americans do a lot of serious outdoor cookery, and Ham thought he ought to take advantage of that. The bull probably brought around 60 cents a pound in Lancaster. Only a little more than half of him would have been beef, but just about all of him would have been useful. When cattle are slaughtered, very little is wasted.

There is leather, of course, and hair for paintbrushes. Collagen is used in glue, gelatin in ice cream, beef fat in a variety of products from soap to crayons to Freon. Many substances from cattle carcasses have medical value for humans, including insulin for diabetes, glucagon for hypoglycemia, trypsin and chymotrypsin for burns and thrombin as a blood coagulant.

For the above information I'm indebted not to the National Cattlemen's Association, to which I belong, but to Jeremy Rifkin, author of a new book which has given segments of the cattle industry hot flashes and cold sweats.

Mr. Rifkin's book is called "Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture." Its premise -- that many of the ills of the modern world would be cured by elimination of the cow -- is shaky, and its tone entertainingly neurotic, but it's filled with interesting information and provocative off-the-wall assertions.

According to Mr. Rifkin, McDonalds purchases more than 1 percent of all the beef wholesaled in the United States; in 1989 there were more McDonald's hamburgers sold in Tokyo than New York City; and there are more than a billion cows alive today, 100 million of them in the United States.

Those are facts, which are scattered through the text. But it's the wonderfully dippy philosophy that holds the thing together. Find a social ill, and Mr. Rifkin will explain how it's really beef's fault.

Thus, beef "is still widely used as a tool of gender discrimination." (A battered wife reported her husband threw boiling water on her because she gave him a vegetarian dinner.) Beef consumption contributes to colonialism and racial discrimination. (It isn't quite clear how, except that in the past, beef was reserved for the ruling class.) Cattle-raising is a prime cause of global warming.

The main, er, beef, raised by Mr. Rifkin concerns the process of feeding grain to cattle. This is inefficient, he maintains, and immoral as well, because of all the hungry people who should have that grain. He'd like to have feedlots and grain-fed beef eliminated. On the matter of grass-fed beef he's a little less specific, but strongly suggests it ought to be done away with too.

Be of good cheer, though. The wicked cattle culture is heading for a fall, and good times will follow. "In the new world that is coming," Mr. Rifkin predicts, "millions of human beings will voluntarily choose to eat lower on the food chain," and an "ecological renaissance" will come to pass.

With the cows departed, city-dwellers will return to the countryside, "where they will take up small-scale subsistence once again," growing their own grain. Like, wow, man!

In fact, though the National Cattlemen's Association doesn't emphasize it, there's plenty about the cattle business that's less than pretty, and plenty more that's open to question. Calving, dehorning, branding and castration involve blood and pain. Healthy cows and calves on fresh pasture are a pleasure to watch, but neither feedlots nor slaughterhouses will ever be tourist attractions.

It's at least arguable that the mass production of beef requires too many drugs and chemicals. And the assertion that grain-fed beef is an inefficiently-produced food probably has some merit, though no one's come up with a better device than the market for determining what's efficient and what's not.

On the other hand, I wonder, what would be a better use for a hilly, erosion-prone place like ours than the grazing of cattle? Would there be more social value in Christmas trees, sheep, llamas or Shetland ponies? If I abandoned it to the multiflora roses and the groundhogs, would anyone join Mr. Rifkin in applauding?

I doubt it, and unless the government orders me not to, I plan to keep the cows. I'm already looking forward to seeing the big bull's calves.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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