By the 1860s, in the wake of the gold rush, some 3 million cattle were grazing California's open ranges and the degradation was rapid, particularly as ranchers had been overstocking to cash in on the cattle boom. Floods and drought between 1862 and 1865 consummated the ecological crisis. In the spring of 1863, 97,000 cattle were grazing in parched Santa Barbara County. Two years later only 12,100 remained. In less than a century, California's pastoral utopia had been destroyed; the ranchers moved east of the Sierra Nevada into the Great Basin, or north, to colder and drier terrain.

California is one of America's largest dairy states, and livestock agriculture uses almost a third of all irrigation water. It takes 360 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef (that's counting irrigation for grain, trough water for stock, and so on), which is why, further east in the feedlot states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas, the Oglalla aquifer has been so severely depleted.

The answer? Drill deeper. Deep-drilling began as a response to the dustbowl disaster of the 1930s, itself a product of farming practices ill-suited to the natural conditions; intensive pumping of the high plains aquifer began after WWII. By 1978 there were 170,000 wells drawing off 23 million acre-feet of water each year. (An acre-foot represents the amount of water required to cover one acre with water one foot deep.) This is in large part a testament to the requirements of a livestock industry worth $10 billion a year.

And of course the gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, and electricity required to pump the water up several hundred feet from the shrinking aquifer are as finite as the water itself. Sometime in the next century, the high plains will be forced back to dryland farming, with such descendants of the present population as remain facing other environmental disasters--prominent among them the poisoning of the remaining groundwater by herbicides, fertilizer, and vast amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from the manure excreted day by day in the feedlots. At the end of the 1980s, Frank and Deborah Popper of Rutgers University began arguing that an era of agricultural "pullback" lay ahead, and the future of the plains might include "buffalo commons" in which native animals such as the buffalo would roam over federally owned grasslands once more.

The pattern is the same the world round: Unsustainable grazing and ranching are laying waste to drylands, forests, and wild species. Brazil's military dictators, who came to power in the early 1960s, hoped to convert their nation's Amazonian rain forests, which cover more than 60 percent of the country, to cattle pasture and thus make Brazil a major beef producer on the world market. A speculative frenzy ensued, with big companies acquiring million-acre spreads that they promptly stripped of trees in order to get tax write-offs and kindred subsidies from the junta. Big ranchers accounted for most of the destruction. Within a decade or so, degraded scrubland had yielded money to the corporations but few cattle, and none of these could be sold on the world market because they were diseased. Indeed, the Amazon is a net beef-importing region. Meanwhile, many of the 2 or 3 million people who lived in the rainforest have been evicted with each encroachment of the burning season.

Such are the assaults on the environment and the poor. By 1990 about half of all American rangeland was severely degraded, with habitats along narrow streams the worst in memory. Australian pastures show the same pattern. In the drylands of South Africa, overgrazing has made over 7 million acres useless for cattle, and 35 million acres of savanna are rapidly becoming equally useless.

Over the past quarter-century many national governments--prodded by the World Bank--have plunged into schemes for intensive grain-based meat production. In Mexico the share of cropland growing feed and fodder for animals went from 5 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 1980. Sorghum, used for animal feed, is now Mexico's second largest crop by area. At the same time, the area of land producing the staples for poor folk in Mexico--corn, rice, wheat, and beans--has fallen relentlessly. Mexico is now a net corn importer, with imports from rich countries such as Canada and the United States wiping out millions of subsistence farmers who have to migrate to the cities or to El Norte. Mexico feeds 30 percent of its grain to livestock while 22 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition.

Multiply this baleful pattern across the world. Grain-based livestock production inexorably leads to larger and larger units and economies of scale, in a kind of world beef gulag whose consequences are now causing such panic in Britain.

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