Dead Meat: Why Mad Cows Are the Least of It

There's a sour irony to the fact that it's taken the extremely rare mad cow disease, which has thus far killed a very small number of people in England, to raise the alarm about the consequences of intensive meat and milk production. Over the past 150 years the demands of such production have destroyed much of the world's ecological balance and impoverished millions.

Start today with one giant U.S. corporation, Monsanto, which makes chemicals and agribusiness products. It has spent many years and a billion dollars or two developing recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The purpose of this product is to increase milk yield in dairy cattle. Inject BGH into cows twice a week and the milk yield goes up by some 10 to 20 percent. But crucially, with the artificially increased milk production, the cows need the infamous protein supplements made from rendered cows and sheep, thus opening the way to diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), which can transfer to humans.

There are other problems, of course. First, who needs higher productivity per dairy cow when there's a huge milk glut in the United States? Second, as happened with poultry and now with hogs, BGH accelerates the demise of small producers and the emergence of the industrial dairy conglomerates.

Like any junkie, cows hooked on BGH tend to get sick, mostly with mastitis, an infection of the udder. Treatment of mastitis requires liberal doses of antibiotics. The antibiotic injected into the cow passes on to the human consumer, and thus contributes to the process whereby more and more bacteria are building up greater resistance to antibiotics. Moreover, BGH also causes cows to produce more Insulin Growth-like Hormone-1 (or IGH-1), which has been linked to a number of disorders in humans, including acro-megaly (gigantism in the form of excessive growth of the head and extremities) and an increased risk of prostate, breast, and ovarian cancer. There is also research to suggest that IGH-1 reduces the body's ability to suppress naturally occurring tumors.

Mad cow disease--a degenerative brain disorder first detected in England in 1986--is a comparative trifle in some ways. Cattle apparently contracted BSE by eating protein supplements made from rendered sheep infected with scrapie, a form of spongiform encephalopathy. Infected cattle become disoriented, suffer seizures, fall down, and die. Scientists believe that consumption of meat from BSE-infected cattle leads to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a fatal neurological disease. The virus may incubate for 30 years. There is no way to detect it or treat it. In England, 10 CJD deaths have been linked to the consumption of meat from BSE-infected cattle.

The U.S. government, of course, maintains that no BSE-infected cattle have been discovered in the United States. But in fact, the disease may have appeared in the U.S. before the outbreak in England. According to a Jan. 24, 1994 story by Joel Bleifuss in In These Times, Richard Marsh, a veterinary scientist at the University of Wisconsin, was raising the alarm about BSE in American cattle back in 1985. Marsh discovered an outbreak of spongiform encephalopathy at a mink farm in Wisconsin. The mink had been fed a protein supplement made from rendered cows that had supposedly died from "downer cow syndrome." Marsh believes the cows had actually succumbed to a previously undetected form of BSE.

"The signs that these cattle showed were not the widely recognized signs of BSE--not signs of mad cow disease," Marsh told Bleifuss. "What they showed was what you might expect from a downer cow." About 100,000 cows a year die from downer cow syndrome in the United States. Most of these dead cows are rendered into protein supplements to feed other cattle. If this is true, the U.S. cattle population may already be infected with BSE and American meat consumers may have already contracted CJD. Still, the U.S. government has done nothing to regulate the contents of animal feed.

Intensive meat production--these days mostly of beef, veal, pork, and chicken--is an act of violence: primarily, of course, an act of violence against the creatures involved. But it is also violence against nature and against poor people. David Wright Hamilton, a biologist at the University of Georgia, once wrote that an "alien ecologist observing... Earth might conclude that cattle is the dominant species in our biosphere." The modern livestock industry economy and the passion for meat have radically altered the look of the planet. Today, across huge swaths of the globe, from Australia to the western plains of the United States, one sees the conquest landscapes of the European mass-meat-producers and their herds of ungulates. Because of romantic ideas of "unchanging" landscapes it is hard to grasp the rapidity of this process, or the degree to which it leaves the land changed forever.

Take California. In the late 18th century, when the first cattle herds arrived in what the Spanish colonists called Alta California, the region presented itself as a Mediterranean landscape, but of a sort that had been extinguished in Europe for many centuries. There were meadows with perennial bunchgrasses, beardless wild rye, oat grass, perennial forbs: 22 million acres of such prairie and 500,000 acres of marsh grass. Beyond this, there were 8 million acres of live oak woodlands and park-like forests. Beyond and above these, chaparral.

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