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A Once and Future Beef

This year beef has become yet another proxy in the never ending culture wars. Such foot-soldiers as Sebastian Gorka and Ted Cruz have stoked the flames, claiming that Democrats are going to take hamburgers away and kill cows, replacing summer barbecues with Stalinism. Of course, Democrats have no such plans, at least not yet; at this point, the Green New Deal (GND) is merely a pipe dream and hardly an actionable reality. Still, the idea that beef could become contested is what provoked reactions. A fact-sheet about the GND mentioned the carbon emissions from the meat industry, and last year’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report specifically named animal emissions and land use as issues that need addressing in order to save the planet within its twelve-year timetable.

“The forecast is bleak,” Troy Vettese writes of the IPCC report in Boston Review: “[over] the course of the twenty-first century, as the global population balloons past ten billion, the Earth simply will not have enough land to expand production for crops, meat, dairy, forestry, biofuels, as well as for various schemes to reduce carbon dioxide, while simultaneously preserving biodiversity and safeguarding the food security of the world’s poorest people.” Half of the world’s habitable landmass, he notes, is used for agriculture. Of this, just more than two-thirds is used for grazing. Of the remaining third, a third of that is used for animal feed, and a fifth for biofuels. In short, a downright incredible amount of the world’s land is used for animal agriculture. And the market for cheap beef is rapidly expanding to include the growing middle class in places like India, China, and South America, further exacerbating the problem.

As the human species faces a fork in the road of epic proportions — with survival hanging in the balance — chances are we will have to confront not only the engines of industrial capitalism, but also the diet it has subsisted on. To do that, historian Joshua Specht has turned his attention to the making of what he dubs the “cattle-beef complex,” the industrial mechanism that birthed a Red Meat Republic; or so asserts the title of his new book recently out from Princeton University Press. The book follows the development of the modern beef machine from the second half of the 19th century until the first decade or so of the 20th. From frontier settlements and the dispossession of Indigenous land to the development of transportation technology and the rise of monopolistic “Beef Trusts,” Specht chronicles what amounted to a “democratization of beef” — wherein cheap and accessible beef for the many became a signal of American progress.

The making of the cattle-beef complex expanded the government’s regulatory powers — introducing legislation and other regulations to ensure food safety — ultimately prioritizing consumer concerns such as price and sanitation, superseding any worries about labor exploitation or animal abuse. Instead of the easy story told by the industry itself, one of progress and technological breakthroughs by way of railroads and refrigeration, Specht stakes out the contours of this history in its political and economic struggles, providing a vivid picture of the sheer violence — from ranch to table — needed to birth the modern meat industry. Disturbingly, by situating the beef industry’s rise historically in the U.S., Red Meat Republic doesn’t make it any harder to imagine the continued rise of an ever larger beef frontier that slaughters and ships record amounts of beef to new markets, with no rise of global vegetarianism — and no climate crisis relief — in sight; instead, it makes it all too easy.

Specht begins his history with the violent conquest of grazing lands. The book’s first chapter, aptly titled “War,” tells how hunters, ranchers, and the U.S. military worked side by side to settle the West. After the Civil War, it was ranching specifically that drove the frontier westward. Ranches were not only the most outward white settlements, but they also served, in many cases, as a pretext for further expansion. Meanwhile, hunters, with the help of the U.S. cavalry, pursued bison in order to both sell the hides and threaten Native people’s subsistence, eventually forcing them onto reservations (where they were sold beef unfit for the white market). During this time, Union general Philip Sheridan, who, Specht notes, was one of the “chief architects” of conquest in the West, delivered a speech to the Texas legislature; it was the height of the cattle boom, and the legislature was considering a bill to preserve the few remaining bison. In his address, Sheridan praised the bison hunters for doing more “in the last two years and [who] will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years.” Once the hunters finish the job and the “buffaloes are exterminated,” Sheridan said, “Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization.”

Of course, Specht notes, the line between hunter and cowboy was hazy at best, and the cowboy more an “accomplice” to conquest than anything. Wars in the 1870s against the Kiowa, Comanche, and Cheyenne people brought victory to the U.S. military, expanding the “Cattle Kingdom.” Specht describes cattle from this time period as “mobile colonizers,” because as they roamed into disputed territory they created further pretext for military intervention. As ranching grew, so did foreign investment in ranches, leading to simmering tensions between large and small operations. This took the form of sparring over private property, water, and new technology like fencing to assert ownership claims. By the 1880s a cattle boom was underway, which was thwarted by harsh winters in 1886-87. These winters, Specht explains, exposed the contradictions of ranching — that ranches were predicated on massive risks that were in conflict with financial demands of investors — and led to the dissolution of many ranches. The balance of power then shifted towards Chicago, where the Big Four meat packing houses — Armour & Co., Swift & Co., Morris & Co. and Hammond & Co. — jockeyed for control of the industry.

“The stories ranchers and hunters told themselves and others were as much a tool of conquest as their rifles,” Specht writes. Early cowboy songs and novels depicting ranching told of a loss of a way of life: “Gone is the buffalo, the Indian warwhoop, and the free grass of the open plain,” one song went, presciently hinting at Bundy-esque motifs of the West’s original state of pure freedom that still persist to this day. The image of the early cowboy did two things: it obscured the relationship between labor and ranch management and it told a fairy-tale version of the frontier à la the Turner thesis (which suggested that America’s uniquely democratic society was a direct result of frontier expansion) that whitewashed both the violent conquest on the Plains as well as the later horrors of the Chicago packinghouses. In Specht’s words, “the open range was more imagined than real, but the idea’s power helped make western violence and land dispossession a reality.”

There were four ways to make money from cattle, Specht notes: “raising them, fattening them, moving them, or butchering them.” As the Big Four ascended, ranchers had to move their cattle to Chicago, often via treacherous marches, where the cows walked thousands of miles to slaughter. Cows would die on the trail, get stolen, face dehydration or disease. Still, quite a cottage industry of cattle movers hustled and dealt, leading the animals through a makeshift transportation infrastructure of gold-rush style cattle towns complete with brothels and dance halls where deals could be struck. Cattle towns, in places like Kansas, would later lobby railroads to construct stops to ensure their boom wouldn’t bust. Without a railroad stop, these towns were finished.

It was the mythology of railroads, refrigeration, and the advent of the assembly line that allowed the Big Four to consolidate power. While changes in technology absolutely transformed the firms’ capacity to ship beef globally with haste, their success likewise stemmed from their ability to crush labor, collude with railroads, undercut local butchers, and use the law to their advantage. “Cattle slaughter was as much about exploitation as innovation; beef distribution as much about collusion as invention,” Specht writes. Slaughterhouses relied on a plentiful and expendable labor force. The Pinkertons — private mercenaries — were brought in to break up strikes for an 8-hour day, and workers injured on the job had trouble seeking legal recourse. Specht tells the story of fourteen-year-old Vincentz Rutkowski, who was performing the jobs of at least three workers when he got injured — a swinging carcass hit a knife that stabbed him in the arm — and he took his employer to court claiming his injury was a result of understaffing. The court sided with the firm, Swift & Company, saying he had the ability to leave to protect his safety.

Despite labor concerns brought up by stories like Rutkowski’s or Upton Sinclair’s Chicago slaughterhouse exposé The Jungle, the safety of workers took a back seat to that of consumers, who ultimately wanted cheap and sanitary beef above all else. (“I aimed for the public’s heart,” Sinclair famously lamented, “and by accident hit it in the stomach.”) This allowed the government to expand its regulatory apparatus, which the Big Four complied with to stave off food safety concerns. The industry’s biggest scandal emerged during the War of 1898, when canned beef — one of the favorite non-perishables of a nascent imperialism — was responsible for poisoning thousands of soldiers and even killing some. This scandal stoked fears of the budding industrial food system and its risks. Yet these fears “may actually have contributed to the naturalization of industrial beef,” Specht writes, because it funneled concern into adequate regulation and actionable fixes for the packing houses that didn’t ultimately challenge their power. Even Teddy Roosevelt, who secured a legacy of breaking the power of big business, didn’t go after Big Beef but rather signed off on the idea of a federal food safety regime, passing both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906, thereby cementing the legitimacy of cheap industrial beef.

According to Specht, the “democratization of beef” allowed diets of steak for workers and aristocrats alike. Cheap and abundant meat, he explains, gave newcomers an excuse to write home to tell of an American abundance that eventually defined global tastes and continuers to influence American cultural identity to this day. Yet Red Meat Republic tells the story not so much of a “democratization” per se, but rather of an economic concentration and domination. Then as now, there were always cheaper proteins available — you won’t be shocked to learn that the cost per calorie of almost all beans and nuts, as well as eggs and a lot of dairy products, is massively less than that of nearly all meats, including relatively cheap ground beef. Yet, the world over, the hunger for beef is growing.

Lurking beneath the cultural signifiers of the mythical American frontier are the cunning tactics with which to justify illegal land grabs.

Despite a few mergers and acquisitions, the beef industry that formed by the turn of the 20th century continues to splatter blood and grind burgers basically intact. The Brazilian meatpacker JBS does get a passing mention in Red Meat Republic’s introduction, where Specht notes its 2007 purchase of Swift & Co. (the member of the original Big Four that maimed Vincentz Rutkowski), thus creating the largest packing firm in the world. But the book does not address the fact that the beef industry is now expanding into the indigenous lands of the Amazon, a fact so on the nose as to seem designed to bolster Specht’s case. As the Guardian recently noted, “Brazil is now the world’s slaughterhouse,” clearing the rainforest to export record amounts of beef to markets like China and Hong Kong. In other words, Brazil is torching and clearing one of the world’s largest carbon sinks in order graze “mobile colonizers”; and it’s only gotten worse since far-right president Jair Bolsonaro took power, gutting and/or institutionally ignoring what few regulations still remained to curb deforestation (not to mention tacitly encouraging the murder of indigenous activists, journalists, and politicians by loggers and ranchers).

As one study by scientists from 40 countries noted, halting deforestation is “just as urgent” as reducing emissions in order to contain the unraveling climate catastrophe. Summarizing the study, the Guardian writes, “Razing the world’s forests would release more than 3 trillion tons of carbon dioxide, more than the amount locked in identified global reserves of oil, coal and gas.” According to another study, “Tropical deforestation could add 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) to global temperatures by 2100 — even if we shut down fossil fuel emissions tomorrow.” On top of all that, deforestation — which is driven by “global greed for meat,” as per the Guardian — will cause climate consequences in unintended ways. New research is starting to show the links between deforestation and changing weather patterns in different parts of the world. When forests are cleared for ranching and other agribusiness, they release less water vapor into the clouds, affecting rainfall and agriculture in places like Argentina and the American Midwest.

Still, what is most uncanny, perhaps, is the striking parallel between the western prairies of the U.S. in the 19th century and the Amazon today when it comes to the dispossession of indigenous land to make way for ranching. Reporter Alexander Zaitchik went to Brazil recently for The Intercept and described in detail the “agricultural frontier” eating into the rainforest. Reading Zaitchik on Brazil reminded me so much of reading Specht: one detail that stood out was the description of the cattle boom towns. Here’s Zaitchik: “The ascendant ranching capital of south Amazonas, [the town of] Boca swaggers with the ersatz Texas style found throughout western Brazil, with cowboy-themed bars and burly men dressed in the region’s take on the Marlboro Man: unbuttoned checkered shirt, cross on a gold chain, blue jeans, oversized belt buckle, boots, and a wide-brimmed hat of straw or leather, pulled low,” which recalled Specht’s recollection of Kansas cattle towns (Ellsworth and Abilene) boasting bars and brothels with names like “Lone Star,” “The Alamo,” and “Long Horns.” Lurking beneath the cultural signifiers of the mythical American frontier are the cunning tactics with which to justify illegal land grabs. JBS must pretend to adhere to environmental and moral standards to appear clean to international auditors — but they are supplied beef by AgroSB, which has been “accused of illegal deforestation, keeping workers in slave-like conditions, and spraying a community occupying one of its farms with pesticides — accusations it has strongly denied,” according to the Guardian.

Global hamburger hegemony, arguably the U.S.’s most powerful export, is now being pitted against a livable climate. Even those who are on the forefront of agroforestry practices like silvopasture, which would reduce emissions related to animal husbandry by adding more trees to pastures, will bluntly point out that our meat consumption must be significantly reduced. The history of U.S. beef has been written; now we have to learn its lessons.


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